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Health care system hit with widening staffing shortages as workers get coronavirus

Emily Alpert Reyes, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

Ambulance workers are "just being pushed to the limit," said James Webb, treasurer for the same union.

The booming numbers of COVID-19 cases in L.A. County have not resulted, so far, in hospitalization numbers as dire as last winter. Health authorities believe that is the result of more people being vaccinated than in earlier waves of the virus, and they have also been hopeful about early signs that Omicron may cause milder illness than other variants.

Healthcare workers in L.A. County are vaccinated at high rates, which makes them much less likely to suffer severe illness and be hospitalized.

But big surges in cases can nonetheless wreak havoc on hospitals if lots of health care workers get infected — even with mild cases — and have to stay home to keep others from getting sick.

In L.A. County, the number of hospital workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 began to surge in December, hitting numbers not seen since last January, when the region was emerging from its wintertime surge, county data show.

The rise in coronavirus cases is not unique to health care workers but reflects the rapid spread of the highly contagious new variant throughout L.A. County, where the transmission rate has been estimated to be greater than at any point since the early months of the pandemic.

 

In the week leading up to Christmas, 323 hospital workers in L.A. County tested positive for the virus, along with 426 health workers in other settings, including people working in nursing facilities and first responders — a total of 749 health care workers.

That was still well below the wintertime surge a year ago, when more than 2,800 health care workers tested positive in a single week. But the latest rise in infections comes as L.A. County hospitals were already raising concerns about staff shortfalls. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has calculated that nationally, employment in the health care sector fell by 450,000 between February 2020 and November 2021.

"We've been at this now for two years and health care workers are fatigued. Exhausted," said Adam Blackstone, vice president of external affairs and strategic communications for the Hospital Assn. of Southern California. "Many who were approaching retirement age have retired, which has contributed to the workforce shortage."

Hospitals can try to hire traveling nurses from agencies, but "everybody's searching in the same pool," Blackstone said.

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