Sep. 23—HUNTSVILLE — Hospitals in Southeast Texas are starting to see a slight reprieve from the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, with over half of Walker County residents remaining unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, officials worry that a fifth wave could hit Huntsville Memorial Hospital — an acute care facility that has been struggling for weeks. It was just a few weeks ago that hospital staff were battling its largest surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began, with virus patients taking up over half of patient hospital beds.
According to state records, those numbers have fallen to an average COVID-19 census of about 33%. That accounts for about 25-30 COVID-19 patients in the facility that normally houses up to 80 people in its general population wing.
However, scars from the fourth wave remain visible. The most obvious is a shrinking nursing workforce.
As a result of the constant COVID-19 battle, many nurses are quitting their jobs in substantial numbers all across the country, with 62% of hospitals reporting a nurse vacancy rate higher than 7.5%, according to a 2021 NSI Nursing Solutions report.
The shortage has forced hospitals like HMH to offer up to $20,000 in sign-on bonuses and hire pricey out-of-state contract nurses. Due to the shortage, these contract nurses can demand rates up to $145 per hour, costing the small hospital nearly $8,000 per day to staff an eight-person COVID unit.
"So many nurses are burned out from the pandemic. They are putting their hands up and don't want to do it any more," said Patrick Shannon, the CEO of Huntsville Memorial. "We don't want to pay the rate that these agencies are demanding, but we are being forced to due to the amount of COVID-19 patients."
As a stop-gap, the hospital has requested $364,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds from both the city of Huntsville and Walker County to fund an extra eight-person nursing COVID-19 unit for 13 weeks. The city granted the request with a 7-2 vote, contingent on the Walker County Commissioners Court following suit.
"We continue to plan for another surge, but right now we have a good projection on COVID patients," Shannon said. "We are planning to keep these contract nurses through the end of the year at a minimum, but if it COVID-19 comes down to a manageable point, then we can manage without the agency and we won't have to pay those high rates."
Huntsville Memorial Hospital currently employs approximately 500 employees, which includes nearly 300 nurses. According to state records, approximately 45% of eligible Walker County residents are fully vaccinated — far below the state vaccination rate of 60%.