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Hospitals Rely More On Expensive Temporary Workers During Pandemic

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
A worker in the St. Luke's Hospital intensive care unit puts on protective equipment before entering the room of a patient with the coronavirus earlier this month.

Hospital leaders in St. Louis are relying more on temporary workers as the coronavirus leaves many health systems understaffed.

Hospitals struggled with a shortage of health care workers before the pandemic, officials said. But they’re really stretched thin as they admit hundreds of patients with the coronavirus every day. Health care workers are catching the virus themselves or needing to quarantine, further limiting the number of people who are able to care for patients.

“As we've seen the virus expand nationally and hot spots occur in Missouri in the Midwest, those resources are significantly constrained,” said Dave Dillon, a spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association “There aren't a lot of people that can run towards the crisis, because that crisis is usually happening where they live as well.”

Early in the pandemic, traveling health workers at staffing agencies moved to New York, Texas and other areas where the virus was surging and hospitals were at capacity.

“Now we’re to where the world is a hot spot,” Dillon said. “So the raw number of people willing to do this work is clearly lower.”

Many COVID-19 patients need large teams to care for them because they’re so sick, Dillon said.

Repeatedly changing face shields and other protective equipment also takes workers time and limits patient care.

Mercy Health is hiring about 80 temporary workers to work in St. Louis hospitals during the pandemic, said Cynthia Bentzen-Mercer, the hospital system’s executive vice president.

Half of those workers will be licensed health personnel. Others will be stocking supplies, answering phones and communicating with patients’ families.

“We couldn’t miraculously create more nurses or care team members, we could help by providing them extra hands and feet,” Bentzen-Mercer said. “We’re looking at these temp coworkers to be support teams.”

She hopes that housekeepers and other workers who are out of work due to the pandemic will consider working in health care, she said.

Current health workers need more support than ever, Bentzen-Mercer said.

“Those across the health systems are tired,“ she said. “It’s exhausting work, and it’s emotional work. They’re seeing more illness and death than they’re going to see any other time.”

Demand is high for all kinds of positions, said Chigozie Obi, founder and CEO of the Elite Medical Staffing agency in Richmond Heights. But many people are hesitant to work during the pandemic.

“A lot of them are afraid of contracting the disease and spreading it to their loved ones and children. Anybody can understand that,” he said. “So some of them have stopped working, and that creates a lot of vacancy.”

Temporary health workers can now make twice their normal rate, he said.

“We had to pay people double just to get them to work,” Obi said.

Traveling agency nurses can make more than $100 an hour during the pandemic, said Dillon, of the hospital association. Some could make even three times that amount.

Federal CARES Act Funding could help soften the financial blow to hospitals and nursing homes.

In early December, Gov. Mike Parson announced Missouri would use federal funds to help pay for hundreds of temporary workers from the Texas health staffing agency Vizient to work in Missouri facilities.

The temporary workers will include registered nurses, respiratory therapists and certified nurse assistants who work in Missouri for 12 weeks. The state will fund the workers through the end of the year, but health facilities will need to pay for the rest of the contract through February.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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