Yakima hospital struggles with staff shortages due to COVID-19 surge

Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital receiving help from FEMA, National Guard

YAKIMA, Wash. — A Yakima hospital is looking to the state and federal government for help in dealing with an extensive staffing shortage due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital had more than 200 employees out Friday due to COVID-19 related reasons, including 43 registered nurses. Dr. Marty Brueggemann, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said the staffing issues are making operations more difficult.

“We are seeing some lengthy delays in being able to get seen, specifically in our emergency department,” Brueggemann said “I know at one point on Monday, we had over 40 people in the waiting room.”

Brueggemann said they’re continuing to see a high number of non-COVID patients as well as a rising number of patients with the virus requiring hospitalization. The hospital had 38 people hospitalized Friday with COVID-19 — a number they expect to increase.

“Although Omicron does appear to make most individuals less sick, the sheer volume of infections means that there will be more acutely ill people in our hospital,” Brueggemann said.

Already, the county hit a record Thursday for the most COVID-19 cases reported in a day: 739 new cases, plus a rate of 2,082 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks.

Brueggemann said the stressful combination of dealing with higher community transmission, more COVID-19 hospitalizations and a staffing shortage has been taking a toll on the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.

Several days ago, Brueggemann said he was walking through the hospital when he came across a nurse who works with COVID patients and decided to ask how she was holding up.

“Her response was ‘I’m not’ and she pretty much broke down in tears with just that,” Brueggemann said.

Brueggemann said the nurse described the difficulty of working 16-hour shifts, day after day, and foregoing scheduled days off in order to cover for other nurses who call in sick.

“They’re tired, they’re fatigued, they’re emotionally drained, and they’re not always treated very well by others,” Brueggemann said.

Brueggemann said the addition of 40 nurses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in November has helped fill in some of their staffing gaps.

“It’s amazing to have that kind of support, because it’s  really hard to maintain staffing without them,” Brueggemann said. “They’re really the reason that we’re still holding it together.”

The FEMA nurses are scheduled to remain at the hospital until March, but Brueggemann said they’ve asked the agency for 20 additional nurses and are waiting for a response. Brueggemann said the hospital is also anticipating help from the state.

RELATED: Yakima hospital receives 40 nurses from FEMA to help with staffing shortage

“I am ordering a hundred members of the Washington National Guard — this is non-clinical personnel — across the state to help hospitals, to assist in non-medical tasks,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a press conference Thursday.

Brueggemann said he doesn’t know how many personnel will be coming specifically to Yakima, but that they’ve been earmarked to support the hospital’s emergency department.

“What we’re trying to understand is what roles can they play? Do they have to specifically be within the walls of the emergency department?” Brueggemann said. “Once we learn the answers to those questions, we can kind of figure out our game plan in terms of where they will be most beneficial to us.”

In the meantime, Brueggemann is asking the community to be patient with staff. He said the nurse he spoke to described some negative treatment by patient and family members who are frustrated by delays in care due to the staffing shortages.

“Please treat our staff with compassion,” Brueggemann said. “They’re doing the best they can under extreme circumstances. They’re showing up day after day, answering the call to take care of our community. They do deserve our respect.”

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