Hospitals stretched thin caring for a surge of COVID-19 patients with a depleted staff — many out sick or quarantining with the virus themselves — have found a lifeline in the National Guard.
Thousands of National Guard members have deployed across the country, including in the Philadelphia region, to ease staff shortages at hospitals and assist with vaccination clinics and COVID-19 testing. President Joe Biden on Thursday said 1,000 military medical personnel would deploy to overwhelmed medical facilities in six states, including New Jersey, starting next week.
University Hospital in Newark, N.J.; Henry Ford Hospital just outside Detroit; the University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque; Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn; the Cleveland Clinic; and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence will be first to get the military medical support, the White House said.
Biden also plans to make high-quality masks available for free and to double to 1 billion the number of at-home tests distributed for free, he said in televised remarks.
The announcement came as COVID-19 deaths continued to rise at alarming rates. In New Jersey, there’s been a 200% increase in COVID-19 deaths over the last two weeks, with about 75 deaths a day. Meanwhile, there are about 142 COVID-19 deaths a day in Pennsylvania, a 38% increase over the last two weeks. While local health officials are cautiously optimistic that the highly contagious omicron variant may be peaking, hospitals that have been hit hard with too many patients and too few staffers are struggling to keep up and welcome all the help they can get.
“Our workers are stretched thin,” said Sharon Kurfuerst, chief operating officer of ChristianaCare in Delaware. The health system’s hospitals in Wilmington and Newark on Tuesday welcomed 18 members of the National Guard.
“The fact they’re coming to hospitals really illustrates the severity of this health-care crisis,” Kurfuerst said.
Also this week, the New Jersey National Guard started assisting a long-term care facility in Atlantic County, Meadowview Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Northfield, along with other such facilities in the state, 6ABC reported.
Hospitals in York and Scranton that are experiencing a record number of new cases are getting a hand from the Pennsylvania National Guard.
The National Guard members are not medical professionals, but they have been able to take on many nonmedical responsibilities to free up nurses and doctors to care for patients. They sit with patients who need close supervision so help can be quickly summoned if needed, greeting patients, restocking supplies, distributing meal trays, and escorting patients during room changes.
“It really helps our clinicians, our physicians, our nurses to provide direct patient care by relieving them of some of those nonclinical tasks,” Kurfuerst said.
ChristianaCare has asked the National Guard to stay for 60 days, she said.
The health system is also in talks with the Delaware Medical Reserve Corps and local nursing schools to provide extra support during the current surge of cases.
The outreach is a proactive step to ensure the hospitals have enough help, as the virus takes its toll on ChristianaCare’s 14,000 employees.
The health system is grateful for “every single set of hands” that can help, Kurfuerst said — including the public.
“The way out of this pandemic is pretty clear. It’s about being fully vaccinated, getting a booster if you’re eligible ... all the things we know work,” she said. “We continue to encourage the community to help us, to partner with us in health care to get us out of this.”