Oct. 21—The Pennsylvania National Guard will be sending members to Berks Heim to start as nurse aides and in other positions Friday and help the county-owned nursing home with a staffing shortage.
The county commissioners unanimously approved the contract with the Guard during their weekly board meeting Thursday, subject to final review.
Under the agreement, the Guard will provide nursing assistants to ensure the facility meets its care requirements.
Fourteen Guard members from around the state will be working at Berks Heim, said administrator Christie Kennedy.
Eight are medics who will serve as nurse aides alongside current employees, and the other six are general purpose workers.
They will remain at the nursing home through Tuesday, she said.
The Guard members are being supplied at no cost to the county through a state program that is available to long-term care facilities across Pennsylvania. In May 2020 a team of Guard members came to Berks Heim to help with COVID testing.
"I'll do anything I can to support the residents and staff here," Kennedy said of applying for the program.
Staffing shortages are on the rise and causing problems for long-term care facilities statewide, in some cases limiting new resident admissions, according to a recent report by the Pennsylvania Health Care Association.
A survey of nursing homes, assisted living communities and personal care homes showed that responding members have lost nearly 20% of their workforces since the COVID pandemic started.
Seventy-four percent said they had to limit or put on hold admissions within the past six months to maintain care for current residents, and nearly 50% had to create a waitlist for seniors in need of care.
Kennedy said recently that she is concerned that at some point Berks Heim may too have to create a waiting list for admissions.
The facility has about 75 open positions to be filled, she said Thursday. When at full staff Berks Heim would have 434 workers, and it was close to that level pre-COVID, she said.
"People are leaving the industry like never before, and certainly a lot of them are burned out since the pandemic," Kennedy said previously.
The position most in need is nurse aides, but the vacancies also include nurses, dietary, laundry and environmental services workers and others, she said.
Commissioners Chairman Christian Leinbach said Thursday that the National Guard help is welcomed.
"Health care facilities in general are struggling across the country to meet staffing levels — nursing homes to an even greater degree," he said, noting that the county has been taking action to hire more workers including holding a job fair last month. "As you can imagine when you're talking about a nursing facility, and specifically about one of the top nursing homes in Pennsylvania, there has been an enormous strain on our staff that are there doing their job on a daily basis."
Berks Heim was recently ranked 10th among the best nursing homes in Pennsylvania by Newsweek.
The magazine picked the top 450 nursing homes, including 26 in Pennsylvania, out of thousands of facilities across the 25 states with the highest population.
Nursing homes were ranked based on overall performance data, peer recommendations and the handling of COVID relative to the competition with each state.
On Thursday there were 308 residents at Berks Heim, down from the 401 it had in March 2020 and well below its usual 420-bed capacity. The daily census has jumped from 261 in March, and so far the facility hasn't had to turn away any new admissions, Kennedy said.
In about two weeks a new LPN and four nurse aides will start at the Heim, which Kennedy said Thursday will be a big help. She is hopeful that is a sign recruitment efforts are working.
If staff would continue to drop as admission applications kept coming in, though, Berks Heim may be forced to create a waitlist, she said previously.
"We're taking a cautious approach," she said. "It's a delicate balance between meeting the needs of the community and providing good care."