Tennessee Hospital Chief: Sick Nurses And A Shortage Of Contractors Are Limiting Capacity

Nov 17, 2020

Pfc. Kathryn Ratliff works at the Nissan Stadium COVID-19 testing site in downtown Nashville in late August. Cases were surging then but have grown much more quickly in recent weeks.
Credit Sgt. Timothy Cordeiro / TN Guard

Tennessee hospitals are calling off elective procedures again, doubling up hospital rooms and converting recovery rooms into intensive care units, according to the Tennessee Hospital Association. These changes come as hospitals are seeing twice as many patients with COVID-19 as they were in early October, surpassing 1,800 current hospitalizations on Monday.

Rooms and beds haven’t been the problem in Tennessee. It’s the nurses and doctors to staff them.

“I anticipate in the coming week(s) authorizing a complete cessation of ALL non-emergent surgeries and procedures in our hospitals so we can redeploy staff to care for an expected increase in cases,” Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine wrote on Facebook over the weekend.

Ballad serves a 21-county region in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia. But the capacity is being felt even by the state’s largest hospital: Vanderbilt University Medical Center says it’s has seen more employees out quarantining or with COVID themselves. And over the past month, VUMC’s COVID ward has doubled to more than 60 patients.

“Our biggest challenge now is having staff stay well so that we can fulfill our mission of offering exceptional personalized care to the patients who need us,” Dr. Wright Pinson, deputy CEO, told employees in a letter last week.

Bringing in more expensive nurses and doctors from out of town is also becoming difficult because they’re now in demand everywhere. Tennessee has even offered financial help to many hospitals needing to hire contact labor.

But money only goes so far, says Dr. Wendy Long, CEO of the Tennessee Hospital Association.

“This ability to create capacity has limits, and if we don’t get greater control on the front door — on the number of patients coming in and requiring hospital services — eventually we will hit those limits,” she says.

Some states already have. North Dakota is now allowing nurses who have COVID-19 but aren’t showing symptoms to continue working.

And in Tennessee, hospital executives don’t see any slowdown on the horizon, unless, Long says, people recommit to wearing masks and social distancing.

On Monday, the state shattered its previous one-day record for new coronavirus cases with nearly 8,000.