By Rachell Sanchez-Smith
As health centers in the North Central region of Arkansas confront growing hospitalization rates, local hospitals like Baxter Regional Medical Center struggle with staffing shortages, thus intensifying the pressures of the COVID-19 resurgence.
“We’re probably hovering very close right now to 3% vacancy rate. That takes out 20 to 25, fewer nurses, it makes a big difference,” Ron Peterson, president and CEO of Baxter Regional Medical Center, said.
The national nursing vacancy rate average hovers around 10%, according to Peterson. While that makes Baxter Regional Medical Centers’ vacancy rate low in comparison, the hospital has seen its vacancies double since its pre-pandemic levels. Baxter Regional has 180 physicians and other medical providers and employs over 1,770 people.
The staffing crisis in the North Central region comes as COVID-19 cases and deaths remain on the rise since February 2021. According to the Arkansas Department of Health, Baxter County reported 423 cases on July 26, higher than the peak 280 cases reported January 8 during the worst of the prior pandemic wave.
The North Central region in Arkansas has the highest hospitalization rate of any other area at a rate of 16.7 COVID-19 patients per 100 beds on July 26, and it exceeds the statewide average of 10.9 beds per 100, according to Arkansascovid.com data.
While staffing has been a longstanding issue for hospitals during the pandemic. The resurgence of COVID-19, coupled with the highly contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates in Arkansas, have put pressure on hospital bed capacity. Other departments also are struggling with vacancies.
“We need housekeepers, environmental service staff, we need food service staff just as much as we need nurses” said Peterson. “That is very difficult to hire individuals into environmental services, food services, maintenance.”
In addition, general turnover has also increased in Baxter Regional and the turnover rate is higher than it was a year ago according to Peterson. The rising turnover rate can be in part due to the persistent burnout experienced by many healthcare workers after lasting 18 months of the pandemic.
“[After] the first surge in COVID, it seemed like everybody kind of got through that. Then you start to see the burnout, as the cases were dropping” said Peterson. “Now we’re going right back into it.”