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Under Increasing COVID-19 Hospitalizations, Iowa Hospital Leader Is Concerned About Staff Burnout

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The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is reporting staff burnout is high amid the fourth wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

As the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations reported throughout Iowa reaches record highs for this year, the state's largest hospital said it is facing critical staffing shortages.

This week, state health officials reported that 638 Iowans are hospitalized with COVID-19 — the highest number reported this year, as hospitalizations continue to climb across the state and nation.

Suresh Gunasekaran, the CEO of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said the increase has been hard on staff because in addition to taking care of more COVID patients, the hospital is also seeing an increase in non-COVID patients.

"What's really challenging is that we are just as full for non-COVID care as we were before the pandemic. But we now have this additional work of the pandemic and the COVID positive patients, both adults and pediatric patients," he said.

Stead Family Children's Hospital is operating at 85 percent capacity, which is "substantially higher" than last year and higher than expected for September, and it is seeing an increase in children with severe respiratory viruses, he said.

Gunasekaran said in the past year, the hospital has lost more workers than usual and has had limited success in hiring contract workers to fill positions resulting in the remaining staff having to pick up extra shifts to fill staffing holes.

"We have not been able to secure as many traveling nurses as we would like, or for that matter, hire as many new staff as we would like. So what's been our challenge this year — is that we have had more folks exit the workforce than normally," he said.

Gunasekaran said he believes this issue isn't limited to UIHC, and hospitals across the state are also experiencing dire staffing shortages amid the fourth wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

"There are bed challenges that are being caused by not having enough staffing, and we see that by increased transfer requests from various different parts of the state when they're unable to staff the same number of beds that they were last year," he said.

Gunasekaran said he's concerned not about overwhelming the state's hospital system, but is very concerned about how long UIHC's staff can keep up with the increased workload under COVID.

"We are paying a pretty heavy price in terms of the mental health of our workforce in terms of the physical workload that they see day in and day out," he said, "and the continued thought that the pandemic isn't going to calm down anytime soon."