Nevada Enlisting Nursing Students for Hospital Staff Crisis

Ken Ritter, Associated Press

January 20, 2022

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — With Nevada hospitals reporting a staffing "crisis" and health officials reporting COVID-19 patient tallies at pandemic highs, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak highlighted a program Wednesday to enlist nursing students to help meet the demand for medical providers.

"The state continues to work with all of our partners to leverage existing resources and break down barriers so Nevadans in need can access care," the governor, a Democrat, said on a day that health officials reported what Dr. John Hess, a University of Nevada School of Medicine associate faculty member, called a "challenging time" with case counts "incredibly high right now."

Hess said during a Washoe County Health District video news conference that he knew "several medical groups in town have been struggling just to keep their doors open due to sick staff."

"I know hospitals are struggling the same (way), as well as I think all community businesses," Hess said during a Washoe County Health District video news conference with reporters. "The school district is struggling with this as well."

Sisolak said as many as 250 nursing apprentices could be drawn from among the nearly 900 students in accredited nursing programs statewide into a program that the governor said would help them "maximize the skills they have learned and get hands-on opportunities in the field while supporting the health care system."

In a statement, the governor pointed also to mailers inviting medically credentialed state residents to volunteer for the existing Battle Born Medical Corps.

The Nevada Hospital Association on Wednesday extended its "crisis" declaration for a third straight week and noted that hospitals in Clark County, including Las Vegas, formally requested staffing assistance from Sisolak.

"COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to increase in both Washoe and Clark counties," the association said in a weekly report that said an unspecified number of hospital positions are unstaffed daily because employees are calling in sick or isolating after coming in contact with someone who has COVID-19.

Last week, the association said patient care was dependent on "overtime, team nursing and other mitigation steps" that were "not sustainable." It launched a campaign to tell people seeking coronavirus tests not to go to emergency rooms.

Now, in Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, hospital occupancy rates for COVID-19 and non-virus patients have reached 98%, the hospital association said. It put staffing levels at hospitals in the Las Vegas and rural areas at "crisis" levels, meaning facilities were "experiencing conditions that limit the ability to provide adequate patient care."

"The challenge right now is sort of a perfect storm of inadequate staffing levels and then surges of patients and percentages of COVID patients showing up in the ICU compared to ... last year," said Cassius Lockett, director of disease surveillance and control at the Southern Nevada Health District in Las Vegas.

"We are continuing to see increases in COVID-19 case counts, as well as increases in testing demand," he told reporters.

Lockett said that while the delta variant is still being identified in people who seek tests, more than 90% of test samples that undergo additional sequence tests are shown to be the omicron variant.

Health experts say the omicron variant spreads more easily than other coronavirus strains and more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or previously infected by the virus. However, early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the delta variant, and vaccinations and boosters offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

The number of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Clark County decreased Wednesday after reaching a pandemic high on Tuesday, at 1,641, according to the health district.

Single-day test positivity in the region has "marginally" declined, Lockett said, from a record 43% on Jan. 9 to 38.3% on Wednesday.

He called expanded testing for the coronavirus a key mitigation method because people who test positive can stay home and reduce chances to infect others.

State health officials reported Wednesday that more than 1,800 people statewide were hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. The number of hospitalizations in the Las Vegas area was 1,627.

Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.