State pursues fixes to deal with health care workforce shortage

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Sep. 16—The state will take temporary executive actions and seek a long-term legislative strategy to cope with an "overtaxed and overworked" health care workforce all over New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu said Wednesday.

The strain of the 18-month COVID-19 pandemic, a recent surge in hospitalizations from the delta variant and increased patient demands for other medical procedures has the system stretched to the limit, he said.

"We still have an overworked and overtaxed health care staff all over this state," Sununu said.

The state will extend for another 120 days an earlier executive order which lets health providers with out-of-state licenses work here without going through this state's licensing process, he said.

In addition, Sununu will approve giving temporary licenses through the end of January 2022 for nursing students in their final year of schooling, as well as for any nurse who retired or let their license lapse in the past three years.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette will soon present Sununu with a legislative package to make the temporary changes permanent, and also "broaden the scope" so health professionals can serve in health care areas beyond their specialty.

"Our health care workforce is getting burned out," Shibinette said. "They have been working in a crisis environment for the past 18 months."

A chronic shortage in staff means hospitals can fill only an average of 85% of their beds, and Sununu said some facilities are at 50% capacity.

Sununu predicted the late fall will bring more COVID-19 infections than in the previous height of the pandemic, but hospitalizations are likely to be fewer, since more than 50% of all residents are fully vaccinated.

No state of emergency

Hospitalizations in the past two weeks have run between 130 and 140, compared with 350 in the hospital with COVID a year ago.

But Sununu said hospital administrators have been losing workers who have gotten stressed by the long pandemic or can't tolerate a vaccine mandate and are able to find other work in a flush labor market.

"When a nurse leaves a hospital, that's a very big deal, especially for some of these smaller rural hospitals," Sununu said.

Later this fall, Sununu said, it's possible the state will need to mobilize National Guard troops or other state workers to do administrative duties at hospitals to help cope with the crunch.

Sununu and Shibinette said they learned offering an "internal surge" of help to hospital administrators was the right way to go after visiting Kentucky, which has been dealing with a massive increase in hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19.

While there have been 10 to 20 deaths from COVID-19 in the past two weeks in New Hampshire, Sununu doesn't believe the fatality rate will return to what it was a year ago, when it was as high as 20 a day.

As a result, Sununu doesn't see the need to bring back a state of emergency, which would permit him to re-impose a statewide mask mandate or other restrictions.

Shibinette confirmed that since public schools returned in the past two weeks, there have been 25 outbreaks of COVID-19 with a total of 146 cases in schools, with 92% of the infections occurring among students.

Two of those outbreaks have ended, and the average cluster in schools has been six children, she said.

Sununu said local officials have adopted a mask requirement for two-thirds of students in public schools, and he doesn't support a statewide mandate of mask wearing in classrooms.

Meanwhile, Shibinette said there are 13 new outbreaks of COVID-19 in nursing homes, prisons and assisted living centers.

The lion's share of the outbreaks are in the "single digits" of cases, which remain low because there's a high rate of vaccination among residents and staff in long-term care settings, she said.

klandrigan@unionleader.com

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