COVID-era nursing home staff crunch hurting hospitals, too

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The worker shortage at nursing homes predated the pandemic, but has worsened over the past two years in a state with one of the nation’s highest proportions of older people.

A recent survey of long-term care facilities found that 20% of the long-term care workforce — representing tens of thousands of people — has departed since early 2020, with the result that 85% of Pennsylvania nursing homes are now limiting new admissions. One nursing home operator in western Pennsylvania said it is declining 80% of resident referrals from hospitals, the survey said.

“It really has become a vicious cycle. When hospitals can’t admit to nursing homes due to workforce shortages, it creates this backlog and it really has a negative impact both on acute and post-acute healthcare in Pennsylvania,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group that conducted the survey of its members.

The group said it is pressing the Wolf administration for a “comprehensive plan” to address staffing shortages, and has offered to train National Guard members as temporary nurses aides in case a large-scale deployment is needed.

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The National Guard has done occasional, temporary stints at nursing homes. In October, a small Guard contingent spent a few days at Berks Heim, a county-run nursing home in Berks County, to maintain staffing levels. Currently, 21 service members are deployed to three personal care homes in northeastern and western Pennsylvania, said Capt. Travis Mueller.

GOP leaders in the House and Senate, meanwhile, asked the Wolf administration on Friday to shift the focus of the state’s COVID-19 task force — which had been tackling statewide vaccine distribution — to capacity challenges at hospitals and health systems.

“The feedback we are hearing from our local hospitals in our communities is that most are operating at 110% capacity with lessening ICU beds and medical-surgical beds available by the day,” the Republicans’ letter said.

Wolf, a Democrat, responded in a letter that “the number one thing that the members (of the General Assembly) can do right now to help our hospitals is to urge all eligible constituents to get vaccinated.”

Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are overwhelmingly unvaccinated.

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