The experience of health care facilities requiring their staffs to get a COVID-19 vaccine is beginning to show the objections voiced by Gov. Chris Sununu in opposing vaccine mandates are a misdirection. Instead, it is further highlighting a worker-shortage vulnerability both here and across the nation which, if left unaddressed, threatens to seriously weaken the health-care system even after the current surge in COVID cases.
The issue, it turns out, is burnout. Here in New Hampshire, a serious health-care worker shortage has existed since before the coronavirus arrived. That comes as no surprise locally, where difficulties in recruiting primary care physicians, specialists and nurses have long bedeviled Cheshire Medical Center, the region’s largest hospital, and other area providers. Similarly, long-term care facilities have long struggled to find the professional staffing they need. Throw in an acute shortage of mental health professionals, and a picture of a health-care system with overburdened staff emerges.
As disheartening as that might be for health-care workers left picking up the slack, the pandemic that’s soon to enter its third year has seriously worsened the burnout factor. Battling the virus has added to the stress doctors, nurses and other staff face daily, but especially discouraging is the adamant resistance of significant numbers of people to taking the precautions most likely to bring down the caseload that now threatens to overwhelm health-care facilities.
As President and CEO Dr. Don Caruso observed tellingly about the staff at Cheshire Medical, “I think they struggle more because they really were hoping the community would do more to protect itself.” Anyone doubting his or other health-care officials’ reports of the significant stress medical workers are now under should listen to a recent NHPR audio tour of one of the state’s intensive care units at https://bit.ly/32cqtnF.
Though Sununu regularly cites the prospect of lost health-care workers in opposing a federal or state vaccination mandate, the mounting burnout effect on staff is what health-care leaders most point to as causing the worker shortage — not the COVID vaccine requirements hospitals and others have implemented in the state. In a recent survey, N.H. Bulletin found vaccination rates among staff at leading hospitals and long-term care facilities around New Hampshire requiring vaccinations to be at or near 100 percent. Elson Munson, president of the N.H. Association of Residential Care Homes, acknowledged the fear a vaccine requirement or mandate would drive away staff, but said overall, that hasn’t proved the case. Rather, Caruso recently told The Sentinel he was more concerned that not having a vaccine requirement would instead drive away vaccinated staff members concerned about the risk to themselves and their families from a workplace with unvaccinated colleagues.
How, then, can the burnout causing staff shortages at health-care facilities be addressed? Sununu recently announced a number of steps to ease shortages, including to streamline licensing requirements to attract more out-of-state nurses, bringing National Guard troops and paramedics into hospitals and creating medical professional “strike teams.” Whether those will provide meaningful relief as COVID caseloads surge remains to be seen — Caruso seemed skeptical in an interview with The Sentinel, pointing to the continued unavailability of beds in the region and state due to the surge — but in many respects those steps are simply more incremental and risk a literal whistling past the much larger burnout-issue graveyard.
What would contribute mightily would be for our critical health-care workers to feel that everyone in the communities they’re serving had their backs during this stressful public health crisis. And that means getting vaccinated, wearing masks and taking the precautions that will reduce coronavirus spread and ultimately ease the near-crippling burden on health-care facilities and the stress and burnout that’s leading too many health-care workers to leave their jobs. Sadly, there seems too little cause for optimism that will happen.