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Amid covid surge, hospitals suffer from worker burnout that forces some to walk off, officials say

Nurses check on a patient in the ICU covid-19 ward at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, Ark., on Aug. 4, 2021. (Houston Cofield/Bloomberg News)

Existing staff shortages across the country, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, have caused widespread burnout among health workers, even forcing some to walk off the job, health specialists and hospital officials say.

“The mental toll of pandemic and burnout is real and it is pervasive across the country,” said Purvi Parikh, an immunologist with the national advocacy group Physicians for Patient Protection.

The pandemic going for more than 18 months, with the resurgence of more severe mutations, has resulted in a “totally exhausted workforce,” Parikh told The Washington Post.

A hospital executive in Arkansas said the pressures are pushing some health workers at his hospital to walk off the job in the middle of their shifts.

“We have had people literally walk off the job, because they could not take it anymore,” Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock, said in an interview with CNN on Thursday.

“We have had people walk off their shift, in the middle of their shift as distressing as that is because they could not take it anymore," Patterson, who oversees the state’s only level-one trauma center, said, adding that the hospital is facing a shortage of more than 200 nurses, positions that they have not been able to fill.

Parikh said the issue of burnout among health workers contributing to these shortages is not only present in Arkansas, but all over the country.

Patterson’s remarks come as local officials sound the alarm of a hospitalization crisis in Arkansas as number of covid-19 patients surge, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant that is ripping through the state.

Last week, Patterson took to Twitter to express his concerns over increasing number of covid-19 patients straining the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

“The hospital is full. COVID-19 numbers increase every day. We are staffing inpatients in the ER and recovery room. No space for transfers. Running out of caregivers. Support health care workers. Mask up. Get vaxxed,” he wrote.

On Monday, the state reported its highest increase in hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

“We continue to see nearly all hospitalizations among the unvaccinated. Do your part to help. Hospitals are full & the only remedy is for more Arkansans to be vaccinated,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced on Twitter.

Also this week, Hutchinson (R) pleaded with people to get vaccinated during a town hall where he raised concerns of a “very real hospital shortage,” where some incredulous residents jeered and mocked him, NBC News reported.

In the past week, hospitalizations increased by nearly 20 percent and deaths increased by 70 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis. More than 97 percent of the people who have died of coronavirus-related causes this year were unvaccinated, Hutchinson said on Tuesday.

The explosive surge of cases and hospitalizations also led Hutchinson to backtrack on his own ban on mask mandates, asking legislators to reconsider the law so that school districts may issue mask requirements before students return to classrooms.

According to Patterson, UAMS currently has about 360 vacancies for health care providers, including 230 vacancies just for nurses, and the university hospital is in such need to find nursing staff that it is willing to pay signing bonuses of as much as $25,000, CNN reported.

"Teams are stretched thin. People are frustrated. People are very tired," Patterson said.

Meanwhile, Arkansas has lagged behind in vaccinating eligible adults, with less than 37 percent of residents fully vaccinated.

The feeling of hopelessness among physicians and nurses who put their lives on the line by taking care of severely ill patients is growing as they see people refusing to get vaccinated and not take the pandemic seriously, Parikh said.

“There is only so much stress people can handle before reaching a breaking point,” she said, adding that in some parts of the country the shortages are getting to the point where physicians are being forced to train to do nurses’ work.

According to Physicians for Patient Protection, a nonprofit organization advocating for physician-led care and transparency in the health-care system, other factors that contribute to the nationwide nursing shortage include inadequate staffing, retirement and an increasing number of nurses leaving bedside care to become nurse practitioners. And it is expected to worsen by 2030.

According to data published in June by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care. The data analysis was conducted before the pandemic and did not include potential further shortages related to burnout.

Yet AAMC President and CEO David J. Skorton noted during a recent congressional hearing that the issue of increasing clinician burnout, which he said has been intensified by the pandemic, could cause doctors and other health workers to cut back their hours or accelerate their plans for retirement.

Parikh warned of a somber forecast of further health workers shortages in the near future, as the delta variant rapidly spreads.

“It is everywhere,” she said.