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Omicron surge in southern states adds to tensions with staff issues


For most Americans, getting vaccinated remains a choice. But like many individual choices, it has consequences for other people. In Southern states, vaccination rates are low and hospitalization rates are rising.

Shalina Chatlani reports from the Gulf States newsroom.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: Northeastern states have been battling the omicron surge for weeks. Now health systems in the South are in crisis mode.

ALAN JONES: We're dealing with a really shifty enemy, and it's changing the rules of the game.

CHATLANI: Alan Jones with the University of Mississippi Medical Center says the big challenge now is staffing.

JONES: We would not have expected that we'd have closed beds and a nursing shortage or that it would put out, you know, 175 or 200 of our employees on any given day.

CHATLANI: Nurses are burnt out and quitting. In 2021 alone, over 2,000 nurses left Mississippi. UMMC has five times more nursing positions open than usual. Others have tested positive for COVID-19 and can't work. Demand for travel nurses to fill the gaps is high.

JONES: Maybe in some places we get one step ahead, maybe in some places get one step behind.

CHATLANI: While infections with omicron tend to be less severe than delta, the new variant is more transmissible. Unvaccinated COVID patients are driving up hospitalizations. And the South has among the lowest vaccination rates.

April Hansen, an executive with travel nurse agency Aya Healthcare, says staffing was a crisis nationally before the pandemic. But now the workforce gap is unsustainable.

APRIL HANSEN: They had a little bit of a breathing room that they just don't have today. Core vacancy numbers have nearly doubled.

CHATLANI: With the first wave, she says demand was generally quiet outside major cities.

HANSEN: It didn't take long until that changed.

CHATLANI: Now contracts are available everywhere, and the competition is tough.

HANSEN: Location drives interest. And so places that are highly desirable, like Hawaii as an example - they don't have to try as hard to lure staff.

CHATLANI: Depending on the specialty, travel nurse contracts can pay thousands of dollars a week. Big hospitals might be able to pay, but health care officials say that can be too high for smaller operations, which end up just closing beds.

Sitting outside close to a hospital where he works, Jackson nurse Jimwesley Williams says last year he left for work in Texas, Maine and Wisconsin.

JIMWESLEY WILLIAMS: But I think now in the South - because Mississippi isn't the only place - there's a need here for nurses also, and they've upped their pay.

CHATLANI: Out-of-state gigs were lucrative because hospitals there were desperate, but they were also exhausting.

WILLIAMS: I came back home for school and for family, and I was just blessed enough to find a contract that paid really well here.

CHATLANI: Some Southern hospital systems have more than doubled their travel nurse pay. Williams got a contract worth about $100 an hour and says a number of his colleagues have returned because they miss home.

ROBERT HART: There is a population out there that has ties to this area. So we are able to pull those people back.

CHATLANI: Dr. Robert Hart is executive vice president of Ochsner Health, which runs 40 hospitals across Mississippi and Louisiana. At its peak, Ochsner had around 1,400 staff out sick. But, Hart says, the worker shortage isn't a new problem.

HART: We've got multiple plans in place and partnerships with various universities to educate nurses, increase the size of nursing schools.

CHATLANI: But hospital leaders in the South say that for the foreseeable future, they'll continue to struggle with understaffing.

For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "RED-EYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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