As more of New Hampshire’s health care workers are getting second doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, hospitals report they are still having trouble with staffing.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department reported last week that 17% of New Hampshire’s hospitals were short-staffed.
New Hampshire Hospital Association spokeswoman Vanessa Stafford said hospital staffing has long been a challenge. During the pandemic, she said hospitals dealt with staff shortages by moving patients to different units in the hospital that were adequately staffed, or to other hospitals.
“As we continue with the vaccine rollout and more staff receive their first and second doses, we are hopeful that staffing challenges will become less acute,” Stafford wrote in an email. But she said shortages of staff would likely be a problem for hospitals even after the pandemic.
“Health care positions across New Hampshire and New England are historically hard to fill, and shortages existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Christi Green, chief human resources officer for SolutionHealth, the parent company of Elliot Hospital in Manchester and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in Nashua.
She said a significant number are caring for children who are in school part-time or learning remotely, and have had to work less or take leaves.
Both Elliot Hospital and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center also started seeing staff retire at a faster clip than before the pandemic. Green said she thought older workers are leaving in part because they have been worried about becoming very sick or dying if they catch COVID-19.
She and spokespeople for other hospitals all said they are trying to hire workers, both those with specialized medical training and support staff like housekeepers.
“New Hampshire just doesn’t have enough of these caregivers right now,” Green said.
At St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua, spokesman Tim McMahon said some days are better than others for staffing.
“There are times when staffing is challenging, because people get sick,” he said. But he said there have been fewer people out sick and on quarantine in recent weeks.
“Probably because of most of our staff being vaccinated now,” he said. “That is certainly helping.”
As of Friday, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, hospitals had administered more than 34,600 first vaccine doses, and over 14,000 second doses.
Competition for staff is fierce, McMahon said, and hospitals end up competing for the same pools of workers.
McMahon said he had heard of hospitals offering signing bonuses to attract workers. And hospitals just across the Massachusetts state line might offer higher pay, he said.
“We have to treat our staff as well as we treat our patients, so that we keep them,” McMahon said.
Catholic Medical Center spokeswoman Lauren Collins-Cline said staffing is a moving target.
“There are days when staffing is very tight, and others when it’s closer to normal,” she said of the Manchester hospital. “I think it’s been reported already that there were days in December where we had 100 employees on quarantine and half of them were nurses. It has gotten better since then (30 total quarantine with 10 or fewer nurses) but, like I say, it’s always a moving target.”
“As the pandemic resurged, we saw an increase in staff call-outs and individuals were quarantined,” said Parkland Medical Center spokesman Ryan Lawrence in an email.
He said the shortage in staff has followed the rate of COVID-19 spread in the fall and winter. With COVID-19 cases beginning to slow in southern New Hampshire, fewer staff are out sick or quarantining, Lawrence said.
The Health and Human Services report also noted that 12% of the state’s hospitals were short of supplies.
Stafford said she was not aware of widespread supply problems, like the lack of protective gear that plagued the early months of the pandemic. Stafford said hospitals have generally been able to get the supplies they need by working with the state, or reaching out to other hospitals.