Nursing Home Staff Shortages Are Worsening Problems at Overwhelmed Hospitals

(The Washington Post) -

Nursing home bed and staff shortages were problems in the United States before the coronavirus pandemic. But the departure of 425,000 employees over the past two years has narrowed the bottleneck at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities at the same time that acute care hospitals are facing unending demand for services due to a persistent pandemic and staff shortages of their own.

With the omicron variant raising fears of even more hospitalizations, the problems faced by nursing homes are taking on even more importance. Several states have sent National Guard members to help with caregiving and other chores.

Hospitalizations, which peaked at higher than 142,000 in January, are rising again as well, reaching more than 71,000 nationally on Thursday, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. In some places, there is little room left in hospitals or ICUs.

About 58% of the nation’s 14,000 nursing homes are limiting admissions, according to a voluntary survey conducted by the American Health Care Association, which represents them. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 425,000 employees, many of them low-paid certified nursing assistants who are the backbone of the nursing home workforce, have left since February 2020.

“What we’re seeing on the hospital side is a reflection of that,” said Rob Shipp, vice president for population health and clinical affairs at the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania, which represents medical providers in that state. The backups are not just for traditional medical inpatients ready for follow-up care, he said, but psychiatric and other patients as well.

A handful of developmentally disabled patients at Erie County Medical Center waited as long as a year for placement in a group setting, Quatroche said. Medical patients recovered from illness and surgery who cannot go home safely may wait days or weeks for a bed, he said.

“I don’t know if everyone understands how serious the situation is,” Quatroche said. “You really don’t know until you need care. And then you know immediately.”

Remarkably, despite the horrific incidents of death and illness in nursing homes at the outset of the pandemic, more staff departures have come during the economic recovery. As restaurants and shops reopened and hiring set records, nursing homes continued to bleed workers, even as residents returned.

Nearly 237,000 workers left during the recovery, data through November show. No other industry suffered anything close to those losses over the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Workers in the broader health-care industry have been quitting in record numbers for most of the pandemic, plagued by burnout, vulnerability to the coronavirus and poaching by competitors. Low-wage workers tend to quit at the highest rates, Labor Department data show, and nursing home workers are the lowest paid in the health sector, with nonmanagerial earnings averaging between $17.45 an hour for assisted living to $21.19 an hour for skilled nursing facilities, according to the BLS.

Nursing home occupancy fell sharply at the start of the pandemic, but inched back upward in 2021, according to the nonprofit National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care. One major force that held it back was worker shortages.

“Operators in the business have said we could admit more patients, but we cannot find the staff to allow that to happen,” said Bill Kauffman, senior principal at the organization.