Hospitals in states struggling with COVID-19 are facing severe staff shortages due to burnout, with 2 saying patient beds are going unused

A clinician is looking over his tools while a nursing writes something down. Both are in full PPE. In the background is a COVID-19 patient.
Clinicians work after incubating a COVID-19 patient in Louisiana. Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • Some hospitals struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks are reporting nursing shortages.
  • Patient beds are being left empty, even as other hospitals fight to accommodate patients.
  • Many nurses were driven out at the peak of the pandemic due to burnout, an official told Insider.
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Some hospitals across the country are reporting severe staff shortages as a surge of COVID-19 patients overwhelms them, with some saying they have to leave patient beds unused as a result.

“We’re really struggling,” Dr. Dale Bratzler, Oklahoma University’s Chief COVID Officer, told Insider. “We don’t have the nursing capacity now … that we did in January.”

Hospitalizations are on the rise in the US, with almost 73,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the country as of August 15, up from about 17,000 a month before.

A graph shows COVID-19 hospitalization in the USA
Number of COVID-19 patients in hospital in the US as of August 17. Our World in Data

Patient beds are being left unused, even as demand is high

States with low vaccination rates have been hit hard: Louisiana is approaching a “major failure” of its health system, Gov. John Bel Edwards said last week. Oklahoma is sending patients out of state, KFOR reported. Tennessee is rolling out the National Guard to fill staff shortages in hospitals. And Alabama has no ICU beds available left, according to a hospital chief.

Yet Bratzler said some beds in his hospital have been left unused due to the staffing shortage.

“We just opened 144 new patient beds in our university hospital. But parts of the floors are not open yet because we don’t have the staffing,” he said.

Austin Public Health also has more beds than it could use, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

“In theory, there are more ICU beds available, but there is not enough staff to provide service for all those ICU beds,” said spokesperson Matt Lara.

All states are reporting some level of staffing shortage, Dr. Jorge Caballero, an anesthesiologist and data engineer, told Marketplace.

In fact, more than one in five hospitals in states in the South and Southwest – such as Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, and Missouri – have reported “critical staffing shortages,” he said.

“It’s a real dire situation,” said Joe Kanter, Louisiana’s chief public health officer, per the Associated Press. “There’s just not enough qualified staff in the state right now to care for all these patients.”

A survey found that 75% of Florida hospitals were likely to hit critical staffing shortages within the next week, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

Tennessee hospitals are operating with about 1,000 fewer staff than at the beginning of the pandemic, the Tennessean reported.

Texas has set out to recruit 2,500 out-of-state nurses, a number that falls “woefully short” of demand, said Darrell Pile, CEO of the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, the Houston Chronicle reported.

A woman wearing a mask and face shield and PPE takes readings from a hospital instrument
A woman reads measurements from a hospital instrument at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital in Louisiana on August 10, 2021. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Pandemic fatigue

Nurses have been driven out due to pandemic fatigue and burnout, Bratzler said.

“We do have more people on quarantine right now than we did before. But by and large, we lost a lot of nursing staff during the peak of the pandemic,” he said.

Nurses went to work in other positions that didn’t require them to give inpatient care, he said.

More staff could be driven out by the ongoing COVID-19 wave. This wave has been particularly hard on the medical staff because patients are so young, Dr. Cam Patterson, the Chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, told Vice News.

“You see people, young people, healthy people who are dying. And they have babies, the babies are dying,” he told Vice, adding: “At some point, that’s not just burnout; it becomes acute mental trauma.”

Exhausted nurses have walked out in the middle of their shifts, he said.

“It’s really hard to come to work all the time and just see such sick young patients,” Alyssa Kirkpatrick, a critical care nurse, told Vice.