Troops temporarily deployed to Strong Memorial Hospital are providing breathing room to the hospital’s overburdened staff but will leave the facility still facing tough long-term challenges when they leave as soon as 30 days from now.
Some 40 Air Force doctors, nurses and other medical staff began working at Strong Wednesday as part of federal relief effort meant to ease short-staffed facilities’ COVID-related strains.
Deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in response to pleas for federal assistance from Gov. Kathy Hochul and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the military medics arrived last Saturday as recent surges in Delta and Omicron variant cases that tested the limits of Strong’s and other area hospitals’ resources are beginning to subside.
But while COVID for now appears to be on the downswing, Strong as well as other area hospitals will continue to face deep challenges when the troops depart.
As the Rochester Beacon previously reported, as climbing area hospitals’ patient censuses strain facilities, staff shortages add an unwanted level of complication.
Despite COVID’s current wane, “our (patient) census continues to be really high,” says Kathleen Parrinello, Strong chief operating officer.
During the recent surges “we had to defer a lot of care,” she notes. “There are many people who had their surgeries delayed who are now trying to get their surgeries done. There are other medical ailments that did not get treated immediately. We’re finding that some of this backlog in current patient need is creating continued high census. We’re licensed for 866 beds. We frequently have over 900 patients.”
COVID surges and the backlog of deferred care they leave in their wake come as Strong and other area hospitals face critical shortages in the nursing staff that delivers the majority of frontline care. Data Strong reports daily to the state show that 755 of the hospital’s 866 licensed beds are currently staffed and that nearly all of those beds continue to occupied.
While Strong and hospitals in Buffalo, Syracuse and New York City are currently getting extra help from the military in New York, other Rochester-area hospitals are similarly packed with patients, looking at backlogs of deferred care and coping with similar staff shortages.
“We aren’t the only (area) hospital experiencing health care shortages,” Parrinello notes.
In a recent PBS NewsHour segment, Rochester Regional Health chief medical officer Robert Mayo M.D. told an interviewer that “to fill needed gaps in our staffing, we have shifted our employees. We have individuals who say, ‘I’m willing to work in this even though it’s not my usual assignment.’ We’ve even had individuals like some of our physicians assistants and nurse practitioners who are willing to work as RNs when needed to help fill.”
COVID has exacerbated longstanding weaknesses in the U.S. health care system, Mayo added. If COVID were to disappear, those weaknesses would not disappear with it.
“We’ve had nursing shortages and physician and other health care career shortages for some time and this has been predicted for years,” Mayo said in the NewsHour segment. “We need to do more and to support students as well as to address the many inequities that have been highlighted during the pandemic (but) are systemic and important societal concerns.”
The military teams are slated to stay at Strong for at least 30 days. Whether they might extend that stay has yet to be determined. Hochul has asked FEMA to extend the military teams dispatched to Erie County Medical Center beyond their scheduled Mar. 10 departure date.
Lt. Col. Allen Delgado, the Nevada Air Force medic in charge of the Rochester deployment, says his teams will take their cue from Strong in deciding whether to leave in 30 days or stay longer. Still, Parrinello notes, FEMA will have the final say.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.