Omicron surge causing dire staff shortages at Mayo Clinic, other health care facilities

·4 min read

Jan. 13—ROCHESTER — COVID-19 cases are spiking across the country, making staffing shortages even more dire, with the health care industry taking some of the biggest hits.

While experts believe the outbreak will recede as quickly as it has surged, they say that at least the next two weeks will be very difficult.

The situation is escalating so rapidly that it is hard to even get a statewide tally of how many hospital employees are absent because of COVID issues.

"Last year, during the Delta surge, we did a couple of weeks of surveys of our members to see how many staff were out. Right now, there is nobody to even fill out a survey, because every hand is on deck and they are busy serving patients," said Minnesota Hospital Association CEO and President Dr. Rahul Koranne on Wednesday. "We absolutely are dealing with a crisis upon a crisis. We've run out of words to describe this crisis. Catastrophe? A perfect storm? Those seem to be understatements.

The MHA represents Minnesota's hospitals and health systems comprising more than 127,000 employees. The organization is hearing that thousands of staffers are absent because they either have COVID, are taking care of somebody who has COVID, or are in quarantine.

While Gov. Tim Walz is pledging $40 million to increase emergency staffing support and the National Guard is pitching in to help, officials say it won't be enough for the surge in COVID-19 cases and employee absences expected in the next few weeks.

After walking through many crowded emergency departments and critical care units, Koranne said people need to understand that the staff shortages in health care facilities have much higher stakes than similar surges in employee absences in other industries.

"So your flight is delayed due to staffing. That's inconvenient. Your garbage is not picked up due to staffing. That stinks. But understand this, if the hospital is full when your loved one arrives, which is happening right now, at this moment, the consequences are much higher. People will be dying," he said.

The parallel rise of COVID-19 cases with the decline of available health care employees is definitely being felt in the Med City. While Mayo Clinic is not releasing numbers about its staff absences, its leaders are acknowledging that it is a growing issue.

"Omicron cases are rising throughout our community. Mayo Clinic has experienced staff absences as a result. Mayo Clinic has excelled at managing these challenges throughout the pandemic and is actively managing staff to accommodate our patients with and without COVID-19 to ensure they receive the level of care they expect when visiting Mayo Clinic," stated Mayo Clinic Spokesperson Kelley Luckstein.

Absences are also plaguing Olmsted Medical Center.

"OMC experienced several high weeks of staff absences due to illness in September, November, and late December of 2021. The height of those peaks were half of what was experienced in November 2020, but were higher than what we experienced February through August of 2021," said OMC Communications Director Barb Sorenson. "OMC has worked with all of our departments since the beginning of the pandemic on contingency planning to minimize the impact to our patients."

On the statewide level, Koranne said the practice of postponing or canceling surgeries for non-urgent medical issues that started early in pandemic is extending to more and more serious conditions.

"Let me describe what some of these canceled surgeries are. So this is not replacing a knee being pushed off by a couple of weeks or a couple of months. I'm talking about heart surgeries being canceled, because there is no capacity of staff available to take care of the patient after the surgery in the intensive care unit," he said. "We've had abdominal surgeries canceled. We've got surgeries on joints and limbs being canceled."

Mayo Clinic did not answer questions about what procedures or surgeries might be impacted by staffing shortages.

Sorenson said that OMC has no immediate plans to reduce hours or services.

"However, we are continually monitoring the situation and, if needed, will work with departments in need to temporarily shift staff or ask another department to help with coverage," she wrote.

Mayo Clinic, OMC and other Minnesota health care centers recently made headlines by terminating hundreds of employees who refused to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

In light of the employee shortages, Koranne was asked how he would respond to critics who say the vaccine rules also hurt hospitals' staffing numbers.

As clinician, he emphasized the importance of vaccines and that controlling COVID-19 is the real battle.

"It's getting clear that we need every single Minnesotan to assess how they personally can go one step further to stop the spread of this virus," said Koranne. "Those small changes will make a collective big difference and help us get through the storm."

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