Local hospitals look outside Austin for staffing help

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A video published Wednesday by the Travis County Medical Society reflects the urgency about the increase of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“Our nurses and doctors are stressed, but they are hanging in there,” said Dr. John Abikhaled, TCMS President. “If this surge continues, in three weeks, they’ll be overwhelmed.”

Hospitals under Ascension, St. David’s and Baylor Scott & White say 76% of their staffed beds are occupied, with 85% of ICU beds being used.

Back on June 24, those numbers were at 71% and 70%, respectively.

The trio represent the largest healthcare providers in the Austin area.

As Texas hospitals take in more COVID-19 patients, our team is asking healthcare experts how this influx affects front line doctors and nurses.

KXAN also wanted to know how it changes the way hospitals operate, so we consulted with Dr. Cindy Zolnierek, CEO of the Texas Nurses Association.

“When you’re at 90% or even 85%, you’re really tight,” said Dr. Zolnierek, CEO of the Texas Nurses Association. “You may have a bed available, but is that the bed a patient needs?”

Dr. Zolnierek told KXAN these are the challenging decisions hospitals will increasingly have to make.

She says like many states, Texas hospitals determine their own appropriate staffing ratios. She said hospital committees are created to help come up with contingency staffing plans in case of a large influx of patients.

“Some hospitals are looking at team-based models where you may stretch the number of patients that an RN may care for, but you may supplement that nurse with other providers,” she said.

Beefing up front line staff could mean recruiting from within through hospital networks around the country.

A document that appears to have come from inside the Ascension network says its hospitals have increased staff ratio to one registered nurse for every six patients. An Ascension spokesperson did not acknowledge the document when we asked about it Thursday.

Ascension did say it was moving some staff from Dell Children’s Hospital to Dell Seton and Ascension Seton Hospitals.

“20 clinical staff members from other Ascension markets have recently traveled to Austin to help Ascension Seton with the COVID-19 surge as a part of Ascension’s critical staffing program,” said the healthcare company spokesperson.

St. David’s Hospitals, under HCA Healthcare, did not answer specific questions about whether it was also looking outside of Austin for help.

“We are currently working to rapidly increase our nursing and support staff to meet the rising patient demand, including increasing shifts, paying critical staffing bonuses and adding additional staff to help with patient volume,” said St. David’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ken Mitchell.

Baylor Scott & White Health said it is deploying and recruiting staff as needed, but didn’t say whether it was bringing on more employees than it already had.

“We continue to invest in team members on the front lines,” the company’s statement said. “For example, last month, we raised the hourly rate for nearly 12,000 nurses and staff, honoring a commitment we made prior to the pandemic’s impact.” 

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