A 25-person military medical team has arrived in New Jersey to help the overwhelmed University Hospital in Newark.
It's one of many facilities across the country to which President Biden ordered deployments to ease staffing shortages caused by a surge in the omicron coronavirus variant and a swarm of health care employees leaving the profession due to burnout. The team will be in place for at least a month, assisting everything from respiratory care to covering night shifts for worn-out staff.
While daily COVID-19 cases appear to have peaked in the Garden State, infection rates are still higher now than at any point during the April 2020 surge and last winter’s wave. According to the state’s health department, about 4,800 New Jerseyans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday, with 500 people on ventilators.
University Hospital president and CEO Dr. Shereef Elnahal said even though the situation is improving, the extra hands could make a major difference over the next month. He spoke with WNYC host Michael Hill about the team’s mission. This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Hill: Paint the picture for us of the current state of your hospital. How many staff members have been out recently due to COVID, and in what ways are these absences affecting your operations?
Elnahal: Well, right now, we are in the high two hundreds of staff out of work, both due to COVID or an issue related to COVID like people having their daycares closed or their schools because of staffing issues or outbreaks in those workplaces. So, we are still seeing a real pinch in staffing at the hospital.
At the same time, we still have well over 80 patients with COVID 19 — and that is a marked reduction from last week — but it's still very much a strain on the hospital. And the other thing that folks don't necessarily track is that our hospital is full of other patients that are not necessarily dealing with COVID.
So there's a lot of acuity in the community — a lot of folks who've deferred or delayed their care. And so these women and men in uniform — these heroes alongside ours — will really be addressing the full gamut of patients that we have.
Is burnout among staff a factor?
It's definitely a factor. At this point, I have fewer tools in my belt as a leader to paint the light at the end of the tunnel. In the spring of 2020, the way I like to describe it, that was very much an adrenaline rush.
Of course, it was difficult. Of course, even some of our staff have post-traumatic stress from when we had well over 300 patients with this disease. But at least we could, at that time, paint the notion that we could bring COVID down to zero as soon as that summer.
Now, obviously, that argument is less effective, and we really have to do as much as possible to improve morale — and these troops really help do that. Yesterday, there was an emotional moment where hundreds of our staff clapped for these folks as we walked them into their orientation. It was just an incredible morale boost.
How many members are on this team, and did they immediately jump into action?
We have 25 women and men in uniform across types of healthcare skills — so physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, really the whole gamut of clinical skills, and they will be dispersed across the hospital.
They're already hitting the ground running at the night shift today. They're doing orientation for really less than 48 hours and then getting right to work. So these are folks who are used to deploying and doing that. They are clinicians that normally work on their military bases, and we're so happy to have them.
The omicron variant has seemingly moved beyond its peak in our area, both in terms of cases and hospitalizations. Do you think these teams are coming in a little too late?
I don't think so. As far as we're concerned, we still have a tremendous load on our clinicians. You already mentioned the morale and burnout issue — that is still here and will persist.
We also have an explosion of mental and behavioral health diagnosis patients — folks who have worsening chronic disease because of delayed or deferred care for the last two years.
No, I don't think it's too late. I think it's just at the right time.
They'll be here for at least a month, and we'll make every bit of use of their incredible skills during the lockdown.
How long do you foresee a university hospital needing this extra help?
I think at least for the 30-day period. We're going to see how things look by the end of next week.
Perhaps we'll request an extension if we think we need it. Of course, that has to be approved at the levels of leadership in Washington. But we really think that this will be a very useful step and appreciate the moves — not only by Washington and the Biden administration — but also by Gov. Phil Murphy's administration in New Jersey.
Nsikan Akpan contributed to reporting.