Despite Workforce Challenges, Frontline Workers Bravely Tackle Another Surge


Hope was on the horizon as we inched closer to the end of 2021. Powerful tools like vaccines, masks, boosters and testing capabilities were ubiquitous, and the general public was deeply educated about how to protect themselves. A new year brought hope for a new health care environment that perhaps would largely leave COVID-19 in the rearview mirror. But, as the holidays unfolded, so did another serious wave of infections due to the omicron variant. And once again, health care workers and hospitals found themselves under siege as COVID-19 hospitalization trajectories went straight up in Texas and across the nation. 

The significance of this wave cannot be understated. The pressures experienced by health care system over the last two years have been additive. Layers of exhaustion and burnout, coupled with mass exits from the profession, have created a mounting storm with regard to health care workforce – a cumulative effect months in the making. The general public’s pandemic fatigue and diminishing patience create a clear challenge for doctors, nurses and other frontline staff as they manage the influx of patients amid a workforce shortage of historic proportions. The effects of winter holiday gatherings and back-to-school exposures are yet to be determined as frontline staff brace for additional impact. 

On a recent call with state health officials, Texas hospital leaders laid out the dire details of their current environments and challenges related to rising COVID-19 hospitalizations. Hospitals highlighted the lack of human resources and hands-on bedside capacity as their chief concern. Worries about gloves and gowns have been replaced by worries about people – a resource that is precious, finite and susceptible to illness. With a significant portion of the general public continuing to eschew vaccination, state health commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt poignantly noted that, “Hope is not a strategy.” And he’s right. What’s needed right now is a massive push to vaccinate the unvaccinated and boost those who have yet to be boosted, particularly newly eligible populations. Without this push, more people will get sick and the health care workforce will be tapped out. We strongly advocated for state-supported staffing assistance for this surge, and we are thankful to the state for deploying nearly 4,000 medical staff members to our facilities in areas of need across the state. While many of our hospitals are experiencing a bit of relief from this assistance, what’s also needed is a master workforce plan for the future.

To tackle this aspect head on, the Texas Hospital Association is moving forward with the formation of an official workforce committee to not only troubleshoot imminent staffing issues but, more importantly, plan for the future of health care and its workforce. The goal is to ensure the industry is addressing potential shortages and planning for what’s on the horizon. The group will be comprised of leaders from a cross-section of hospital types and will include human resources professionals and nursing and physician representatives, as well as other key specialty groups.As we make our way through the omicron surge, please continue to urge vaccination at every turn and know that the issue of workforce is our most pressing focus as we make our way through omicron and beyond. Patients are more aware of the current risks than ever before, but in some cases it takes face-to-face convincing by a trusted health care provider to prompt a person to get vaccinated. This is no small task, and it’s made tougher by workforce strains on our industry. But as we move through this surge, the Texas hospital industry has pledged to take a close, hard look at workforce challenges today to ensure our frontlines are protected for the future. 

Originally published by the Houston Medical Journal.
Jan. 18, 2022