Weary nurses urge return to public-health mandates as omicron peaks
Taken from NJSpotlight.com
By Lilo Stainton
January 10, 2022
Masking up, getting fully vaccinated will help keep people out of hospitals in first place, but some providers argue new strategies will also lighten the load
Hospitals in New Jersey have been struggling with staffing shortages for weeks. Patient numbers have grown quickly and the omicron variant has infected record numbers of workers, thinning their ranks at the bedside and behind the scenes.
But acute-care leaders said they believe the steps they are taking now — extending shift hours, cancelling certain elective surgeries and supplementing the workforce with out-of-state clinicians — will allow their facilities to properly care for patients. Those strategies are already being tested as New Jersey prepares to face what could be the highest number of hospitalizations ever recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Predictive modeling conducted by the state Department of Health suggests the state’s 71 acute-care facilities could be dealing with as many as 9,000 patients later this week.
But many bedside caregivers are exhausted and growing angry. Nurses and other clinicians are frustrated to be battling yet another coronavirus surge — the third in New Jersey since the pandemic hit in March 2020 — when basic public health precautions like wearing masks and getting fully vaccinated could help blunt the impact on hospitals.
“Nurses have shifted from panic to anger. Why are we here again? How did we get overwhelmed?” explained Debbie White, a longtime nurse and president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees, which represents thousands of bedside caregivers in New Jersey. “They are just absolutely appalled to be two years into the pandemic and see this handled so poorly, again.”
White said state officials should have seen the path omicron would take in New Jersey, based on its trajectory elsewhere, and done more to protect the health care system — something that was touted as critical during previous COVID-19 surges. The state has maintained mask mandates for schools and child-care sites and mandated vaccinations, or regular testing, for thousands of health care professionals, educators and state workers. But general mask mandates, limits on gatherings and other public health precautions are no longer in place. And the state no longer restricts elective surgeries, something White said would help free up nurses.
“We don’t have to shut down, but we need to handle it using the same mitigation strategies to protect the public and slow transmission — all the things we’ve done before,” White said. “Instead, it’s like the barn door is open and all the animals have escaped.”
The number of new COVID-19 diagnoses reported daily has shot up in recent weeks — thanks to the highly transmissible omicron mutation — spiking to a new high Wednesday when more than 37,000 people were likely infected or positive for the virus. Hospitalizations were climbing more slowly, but then jumped nearly 90% in the six days between Dec. 31 and Thursday, when some 5,600 people were in acute care. According the DOH modeling shared last week, the trend will continue until it peaks Friday with between 6,000 and 9,000 hospitalizations statewide; an update was not available.