Rural Hospitals Face Staffing Shortages Amid Omicron Outbreak

Bare shelves, absent employees and virtual schooling, are all signs of the latest surge from the Omicron variant of COVID. While health officials say the peak may be passing in some of the nation's biggest cities in rural America, the wave is just beginning. 

"Looking at data this morning from the CDC, we're seeing a lot of rural towns having a six percent to a 15 percent increase in COVID over the last forty-eight hours," said Alan Morgan the CEO of the National Rural Health Association.  

The highly transmissible, and in many cases the milder, omicron variant has been pushing COVID-19 positive rates higher since late fall. Now the wave is finding its way to rural America. 

"The real impact is on these small rural hospitals and their workforce where the workforce has always been a problem for rural facilities," said Morgan. "Now, after we've seen the pandemic really flatten the rural workforce and we're seeing a lot of rural health care professionals become infected with COVID, they're struggling, honestly, to have the staffing that they need at this moment." 

(Watch the full interview above)

He says getting help often means hiring traveling nurses and usually it's at twice the cost. 

"They're not always available," Morgan says. "In many cases, the urban facilities are utilizing this service as well, too."

Staff or no staff, small rural hospitals often must transfer seriously ill patients but currently, options are limited. EMS services in rural areas are also short-staffed. 

"These three things are combining to make a really unsafe situation in our rural hospitals," Morgan says. "One thing we've been talking to the federal government about is assisting the states in coordinating the workforce when it comes to these surges."

Morgan is also hoping for improved communication and coordination from state and federal officials to help transfer patients between hospitals if needed. 

While money and finances have been a concern in the past, today it's just about people. 

"There are only so many bodies to be had to be able to work in these small hospitals," said Morgan. "It doesn't matter how many beds you have; you have to have the people to staff those, and that's really the crisis we're in right now."

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