Johnson County hospitals struggle with staffing shortages, nurse burnout — how they’re trying to cope

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As COVID-19 transmission in Johnson County continues to remain high, area hospitals and their staffs are finding themselves still working around the clock to treat and discharge patients, roughly a year-and-a-half into the pandemic.

The struggle to endure long shifts and multiple days working can be taxing physically and mentally draining, health officials say.

“There are some weeks where I’m here at the hospital more than I’m at home,” Julie Rojas, a respiratory therapist with KU Health said last week during one of the hospital’s daily COVID-19 briefings. “Your coworkers become like your family, and they understand the things you see and deal with.”

The University of Kansas Health System — the region’s largest — recently reported that nearly 10% of its staffed respiratory therapists have resigned due to stress and frustration of the job.

While that number of resignations is high, KU Health officials have insisted that patient care would not be impacted, but the health and mental well-being of staff need to be prioritized during a pandemic that is still affecting millions around the world.

Likewise, health care systems serving Johnson County report dealing with similar staffing issues within their facilities and say they are trying to offer programs and amenities to help workers who are feeling the effects of burnout.

The Post reached out to four of the biggest health care systems serving Johnson County to see if they, too, were dealing with staffing shortages and other issues related to COVID-19 related fatigue and if there were any specific policies in place for employees to assuage the effects of working during the pandemic.

The only one not to immediately respond was St. Luke’s. Here are the others’ responses:

Advent Shawnee Mission:

  • AdventHealth Shawnee Mission has had several staff, including nurses, physicians and other clinical staff resign due to fatigue from caring for COVID-19 patients, a spokespersons aid.
  • A total of 502 open positions — a record number, according to AdventHealth officials — are currently available.
  • Of those open positions, 434 are at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission on 75th Street in Merriam, and 68 are at AdventHealth South in Overland Park.
  • Several staff members have left to pursue travel positions offering significant increases in pay, the hospital reports.
  • Advent Health says it does offer different programs and resources for members of staff, including in-person therapy sessions for team members and physicians who may be struggling to cope with the stresses of the pandemic.
  • A text-based app that’s free to AdventHealth team members that include coaching and resources to support mental health is also available.
  • And “serenity rooms” are also provided for clinical staff to stop and regroup and are available in the primary COVID unit. These rooms are designed to provide a calm, quiet environment with soft lighting, relaxing music, and massage chairs.

Olathe Health:

  • Olathe Health has experienced staffing shortages and Olathe health associates have endured pandemic-related fatigue, say hospital officials.
  • But a hospital spokesperson said because not all staffing changes are specifically pandemic-related, it’s hard to quantify specific numbers related to staffing needs.
  • A hospital official did say that staffing needs increase whenever the hospital’s census, or patient numbers, go up.
  • In addition to encouraging staff to utilize the Employee Assistance Program, which provides free counseling services, Olathe Health has brought counselors to facilities to make these services more accessible.
  • Nurses and associates have also been given cash bonuses and increased base wages, and staff is provided with the personal protective equipment and resources needed to feel safe while in their work environments.

HCA Midwest Health:

  • HCA Midwest Health says it continues to proactively address clinical workforce shortages and an increase in patients compounded by the pandemic.
  • Several hundred new nurses have joined HCA Midwest Health this year, according to the hospital, a result of recruitment efforts that include sign-on bonuses and referral bonuses in strategic areas and specialties.
  • The hospital system did not provide a specific number or new hires or staff openings.
  • HCA Midwest says it has also placed a focus on hiring for professions that help support nurses, including licensed nursing assistants and patient care technicians.
  • In addition, HCA officials say they continue to provide colleagues resources such as professional development, tuition assistance, scholarships, expanded benefits, mental health programs and online supports that aim “to promote a culture of ongoing learning, caring, and compassion.”

Vaccinations urged

Local health officials continue to urge residents who are eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19. They say that continues to be the best protection against the virus.

Rojas said one thing contributing to staff fatigue is the feeling of fighting against misinformation about the pandemic and vaccinations.

“Listen to the experts and take their advice and don’t take your own data and turn it into ‘COVID being a farce,’ that it doesn’t exist, because it really does exist,” Rojas said last week. “I feel like a lot of the health care community is feeling the burnout and feeling the pressure because people don’t think it’s real, and it’s very real.”

Currently, just over 61% of Johnson County residents 12 years and older are fully vaccinated, according to the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

JCDHE health officials continue to offer various vaccinations sites within the community free of charge. More information about vaccination events can be found here.

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