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Omicron wave could overwhelm hospitals, Nebraska leaders say
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Omicron wave could overwhelm hospitals, Nebraska leaders say

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Nebraska health care workers warn of COVID treatment shortages amid omicron surge

Hospital CEOs from across Nebraska sounded the alarm Monday over rising COVID-19 cases that are putting a crunch on hospitals already strained by staff shortages.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported 602 hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of Monday morning, a nearly 35% increase since Christmas Eve.

That number remains below the 2021 peak of 637 patients set on Dec. 13, and is well below the pandemic high of 987 set on Nov. 20, 2020.

But Jeremy Nordquist, president of the Nebraska Hospital Association, said hospital numbers are likely to climb rapidly in the next few weeks thanks to a surge in COVID-19 cases because of the omicron variant.

"We could see a doubling of hospitalizations in Nebraska due to COVID in the next two to three weeks," Nordquist said during a news conference held via Zoom.

That would be bad news for hospitals that are already struggling to care for current patient loads.

Ivan Mitchell, CEO of Great Plains Health in North Platte, said about 25% of the hospital's patients are COVID-19 positive.

That makes it hard to care for all the patients the hospital has but also affects the region because Great Plains is often forced to turned down transfer requests from smaller hospitals.

Mitchell said that in a typical year before COVID-19, Great Plains would turn down about 10% of transfer requests, but that number currently is 30-35%.

It's not only the sheer numbers of COVID-19 patients but also a shortage of health workers.

Mitchell said that he's worked in health care for 20 years, "and in my time, I've never seen a staffing shortage like it is right now."

Usually, he said, the hospital can fill open positions with traveling nurses, but even that option is getting more difficult.

A shortage of health care workers, especially nurses, was an issue before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has made things markedly worse.

"I think it all just came to a head during the pandemic," Mitchell said.

Josie Abboud, president and CEO of Methodist Hospital in Omaha, said workers are leaving for a variety of reasons, including burnout. She also said there are not nearly enough new workers coming out of college to replace the ones that are leaving.

Abboud said Methodist currently has more than 900 open positions.

Todd Consbruck, president and CEO of Avera St. Anthony's hospital in O'Neill, said he's seeing a lot of older workers, who stayed during the early part of the pandemic out of a sense of duty, now deciding to retire.

Consbruck applauded the workers who continue to gut it out, noting they face a lot of challenges, including a lack of respect and kindness from frustrated patients and their families.

"Thank God they keep coming to work every day and caring for people," he said.

The long-term staffing issues are also being exacerbated by a short-term problem: as the omicron variant rages through communities, health care workers and their families are getting sick, which is taking vital people out of the workforce.

Abboud said Methodist currently has 178 employees out because of COVID-19, including about 50 nurses.

Nebraska has seen more than 16,000 new COVID cases over the past seven days, an average of more than 2,350 cases a day. Less than a month ago, it was averaging less than 1,000 cases a day.

Hospitals have taken a number of measures to free up space in preparing for more patients, such as canceling some elective surgeries and using operating and recovery areas as patient rooms.

But the hospital executives said they need the public's help to slow the surge of people heading to the hospital because of COVID-19.

"We need people to vaccinate," said Consbruck, who added that people should also get a booster shot if eligible.

And, he said, people need to "take it seriously" when they are ill, stay home and not attend family and social gatherings.

"I think there's just a numbness to COVID," Consbruck said. "People think in some sense it's went away."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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