RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Almost 10 percent of hospitals in North Carolina responding to a government survey say they expect a critical staffing shortage within the coming week.
According to the dataset released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and reviewed Monday by CBS17.com, seven of the 127 hospitals that responded say they are currently dealing with a shortage of staff with another three anticipating one within the week. Those hospitals are not identified in the data.
North Carolina appears to be in better shape than its neighboring states and as the nation as a whole.
Across the country, 19 percent of hospitals reporting — or, more than 1,000 of them — say are facing staffing shortages now, with 23 percent of them saying they expect a shortage in the coming week.
Both Virginia (29 percent) and South Carolina (27 percent) have much higher percentages of hospitals reporting current shortages.
“In North Carolina, we’re very fortunate that we are in better shape than many but not as great a shape as any of us really wants to be,” said Tatyana Kelly of the North Carolina Healthcare Association. “The overall picture is better than many but we wish we were even better than we are.”
Those surveys are completed daily, and a closer look at the timeline shows the number of hospitals short of workers has increased over the past month.
During the two weeks from Nov. 9-22, there was an average of 5.4 hospitals per day in North Carolina reporting existing shortages of staff. In the two weeks before that, the average was fewer than two.
Hospitals across the state have reported increasing numbers of patients with COVID-19 in recent weeks. A single-day record of 1,601 COVID patients were hospitalized Monday, the seventh time in eight days that the coronavirus hospitalization record was either matched or set.
“There are just too many people getting sick right now,” University of North Carolina professor Glenn Morrison said. “Our health care system’s going to get overwhelmed. It’s at the verge of right now getting overwhelmed.”
The state’s new county alert system lists four counties that have faced a high impact on their hospitals due to COVID, with Wilson County the only one in the CBS 17 viewing area. According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, among the factors in deterring the impact level to medical facilities are the percentage of COVID-related hospitalizations, COVID-related visits to emergency departments, staffed open beds — and critical staffing shortages over the previous 14 days.
Officials at Wilson Medical Center did not respond to a message from CBS 17 asking about the facility’s staffing situation. Wilson County Health Director Teresa Ellen said she was unaware of any staffing issues there.
In the Triangle, three of the leading hospitals say they are not dealing with any such issues.
Duke Health officials said in a statement their three hospitals “are not facing staffing shortages due to COVID.” And WakeMed spokeswoman Kristin Kelly said officials at that facility “have no immediate concerns regarding bed, surge or staffing capacity.”
UNC Rex Healthcare spokesman Alan Wolf said his facility is “cautiously optimistic regarding our staffing demands,” noting that the hospital recently brought in roughly 24 traveling nurses to supplement the existing staff and has altered schedules and worked additional hours.
Officials at UNC Hospitals did not immediately return a message asking about their staffing levels.
Those concerns elsewhere in the region and across the country come as hospitals brace for the holiday season — which puts a strain on them in normal years, but especially so this year.
Tatyana Kelly said those facilities have holiday plans in place to allow employees to take some time off.
“But at the same time, the other thing the hospitals are always doing is understanding the holidays are high-utilization times, to begin with, so that’s customary in a normal year,” she said. “So they’ve been doing everything they can to be able to stock up to meet that demand. Of course, this year, on top of everything, you have COVID and that means that each hospital’s need to stock up is greater than it normally is.”
Because small, seemingly safe gatherings have been among the drivers of recent spread, leaders have urged people to curtail travel for the Thanksgiving holiday and instead spend it with those in their immediate household.
“We know that the coronavirus has an incubation period that takes several weeks, so it’s not food poisoning — it’s not like everybody gets together and that afternoon you know what you did or didn’t do,” Tatyana Kelly said. “That’s where the concern is.”