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Two Hawaiʻi Hospitals in 'Crisis' Staffing Mode as COVID-19 Patients Surge

nurse coronavirus healthcare
Ted Jackson/AP
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FR 171790 AP
A nurse injects steroids into a COVID-19 patient on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Ted Jackson)

The surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is putting a strain on Hawaiʻi's healthcare staff. The head of the Hawaiʻi Nurses' Association says two Oʻahu hospitals "are in crisis mode as far as staffing goes."

The nursing association represents some 4,000 nurses across the state, including those at Queen's Medical Center — Oʻahu’s trauma center — and other smaller hospitals and skilled nursing facilities across the islands.

The head of the HNA, Daniel Ross said the staffing crisis existed before the pandemic, and COVID-19 has exacerbated it.

"We're short period. In places like Queen's and Straub, it really makes me angry, honestly, because this is completely preventable. We're here because management refused to hire up," Ross said. "Even before COVID came around the first time, we were short because that's the way they save money."

"They want to have just enough. So when things go bad, you don't have enough," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "It's cheaper for us to work double shifts, extra shifts than it is to hire another full-time employee — they have to get benefits too."

He said some intensive care unit nurses are working 16 hours straight, two days in a row.

"You cannot last doing things like that," Ross said. "Incentive, great. So a little extra money, you'll have people pick up extra shifts. But it's not the answer."

Kelly Johnson, Chief Nursing Officer for Queen’s Medical Center, said Tuesday the hospital has been hiring for some time.

"We've been recruiting nurses on an ongoing basis prior to the COVID pandemic, as well as during the COVID pandemic," she told Hawai'i Public Radio. "Between March of 2019 and March of 2021, we hired nearly 100 additional full-time nurses and those were new nurses to the system."

Johnson said the health system now has close to 100 COVID-19 patients. To address the surge in patients, Johnson said they have closed down elective surgery and are deploying available nurses from surgical services to the emergency department.

Through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Johnson said the health system "ordered" 140 nurses and respiratory therapists. She said they've also requested about 60 from a mainland agency.

But Ross said relying on travel nurses, who do not require benefits, is part of the problem. Usually, there is a contractual agreement that says Queen's cannot have more than 30 travel nurses at a time — COVID-19 changed that.

Hawaiʻi Pacific Health said it too has made arrangements for additional staff and travel nurses for its hospitals, and is working with the Healthcare Association for additional staffing aid through FEMA.

These interviews aired on The Conversation on Aug. 10, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is HPR's digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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