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Buffalo Business First: With Existing Shortage For Nurses, Healthcare Workers, Who Will Staff New Sites?

Updated: 3/23/2020

By: Tracey Drury

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is looking at converting hotels, closed hospitals and other sites to increase capacity by 50 percent to meet the demand for beds to treat coronavirus patients. Staffing those new sites could be the greater challenge.

With FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers now stepping in to retrofit shuttered hospitals, hotels, college dorms and other facilities across New York, local health-care officials are now brainstorming how best to staff up to meet the need.

Meeting the workforce needs for their existing sites, plus new sites, will require creative ideas as well as exemptions and changes at the state and federal level.

Catholic Health last week made a decision to convert the Sisters of Charity Hospital St. Joseph Campus into a COVID-19 specialty site, with plans to transfer existing patients out to other locations. On Saturday, the hospital closed the emergency department and began fomulating a plan with 170 associates who volunteered to staff the converted site.

Kaleida Health is looking at how quickly it can reopen DeGraff Memorial Hospital in North Tonawanda, part of a plan to open up 300 more beds systemwide to build capacity. Michael Hughes, chief of staff, said the system will look to repurpose its workforce to meet staffing needs, including possibly bringing in retired physicians or graduating nurses.

“If we’re not doing outpatient surgical cases, how can (physicians and staff) be repurposed? If our school-based nurses are off school now, they’ll be repurposed,” he said. “We’re taking a look at where we are operationally and what the staff need is and who can be redeployed.”

That could mean orthopedic surgeons managing patients on an inpatient floor, or nursing staff, physicians and advanced-practice providers working over and above what they typically do to manage the patient load.

State legislators are urging the state to consider reopening Brooks-TLC Hospital System's Lakeshore Health Center Campus in Irving, which closed late last year. And County Executive Mark Polancarz has also explored reopening the Erie County Home, which shut down in 2011.

“I think staff and the resources to take care of these patients is probably going to be the biggest challenge,” said Thomas Quatroche Jr., CEO at Erie County Medical Center.

Already, the State Department of Health has eased regulations to allow licensed professionals, including nurse practitioners and others, to work outside their regular scope of practice. And credentialing agencies have eased guidelines and regulatory requirements that typically take months.

That’s a significant move by the health department to pull the entire workforce forward, said Dr. David Hughes, Kaleida’s chief medical officer.

Kaleida has already begun retraining some workers, with nurses who may have worked as surgical technicians relearning how to work in the ICU. Orthopedic surgeons are being taught the basics of hospitalist medicine.

“Much of this is happening at the front line,” Hughes said. “We are evaluating our talent management and online training for other opportunities to increase people’s scope of practice.”

Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center said Friday it could add 56 more beds, taking existing beds now used for post-surgical outpatient use or cardiac for med-surge (medical/surgical) beds or ICU.

“It’s the same as every other hospital in Western New York is doing: Identifying how we reconfigure what patients we put there to make sure we open enough beds for the DOH directive,” said Patrick Bradley, director of communications and emergency management. “They’re watching this carefully here and across the state, trying to get the big picture in focus so they know what they need to do to ramp up.”

Catholic Health has already begun reaching out to retired workers as it takes inventory of all possible workers, said CEO Mark Sullivan, including students and EMS workers who could help by taking temperatures of those entering the facility or with supply chain and inventory.

“They’re the lifeblood of health care, nurses and health-care workers who are so crucial to the wellbeing of our community,“ he said. “People coming out of retirement, these health-care workers know how to care for people. They know about personal-protective equipment and universal precautions. We’re going to have a surge of people who need guidance, who need support.”

Primary-care providers say they need more guidance, but have a workforce that could help too, especially as some begin to downsize or lay off staff, said Dr. Raul Vazquez, CEO at Urban Family Practice and GBUAHN.

"We need a little bit better guidance and some concepts that will work, so that all necessary health staff is maintained during these turbulent times, especially in primary care, which should’ve been a first offense against this virus," he said.