UTICA, N.Y. — The president and CEO of the Mohawk Valley Health System (MVHS) in Utica says its hospitals are dealing with staffing challenges as the pandemic continues and COVID-19 cases have been on the rise throughout the region.
That’s according to a YouTube video from Darlene Stromstad that MVHS released on Wednesday, Dec. 9 to update the community on key issues related to the resurgence of COVID-19 in the community and at the MVHS hospitals.
MVHS is an affiliation between Faxton St. Luke’s Healthcare and St. Elizabeth Medical Center.
In the video, Stromstad also discussed the organization’s supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), hospital capacity, and what both employees and the community can do to help.
“We are doing everything we can to protect our patients, our employees, and our community,” Stromstad said in the video.
She wanted the video to “address some of the confusing and conflicting messages people are hearing,” so Stromstad said she would just “focus on the facts.”
The MVHS CEO noted that “at this time, we have not eliminated elective surgeries and procedures. We saw last spring that delayed care could be risky for people.”
Stromstad began her message by saying how proud she is of the dedicated MVHS health-care workers who continue to care tirelessly for patients and the community, calling them the “real heroes of this pandemic.”
Just like hospitals across the country, MVHS is struggling with staffing given that there is a nationwide nursing shortage, which has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This shortage existed even before COVID-19,” Stromstad noted in her remarks. “Last winter, before we had heard about this coronavirus, there was a national shortage of nurses of 1.2 million nurses … in the United States and then you [add] on to that increased demand on hospitals due to COVID and the numbers of staff that are out because they’ve been exposed or have become ill with this dreaded virus.”
The Mohawk Valley is not immune to this shortage, she added.
The MVHS leadership team and the human-resources (HR) department are working “aggressively” to recruit employees, in particular nurses, care techs, lab personnel and workers in environmental systems and nutrition.
“In addition to recruiting, we’re implementing a staffing plan for the next three weeks that offers increased compensation for nurses who are willing to work extra shifts,” Stromstad said.
MVHS also plans to bring in agency nurses (travelers) as quickly as possible and is exploring other agency options for care techs and other essential jobs.
It is reaching out to past employees as well as those who have applied to MVHS in the past. This includes the 10 nurses who took a layoff and asking them to consider taking an open position. Stromstad also noted that all affected staff members have long been back from furloughs.
“And you may recall that one of our unions, NYSNA, chose to take a layoff instead of the furlough option. Of those nurses involved, all but about 10, have [chosen] to come back to other nursing positions at MVHS,” the MVHS CEO said.
MVHS HR officials are also contacting schools and connecting with businesses where there have been layoffs to look for workers, in addition to bringing in nursing students during their winter breaks.
The organization is inviting representatives from the nursing unions to join it in “developing other solutions.”
“We are seeking to adjust wages where we are not competitive,” said Stromstad. “We’re offering incentives for joining MVHS and we’re identifying other innovative approaches for filling all of the open positions for these critical jobs,” she added.
MVHS says a list of open positions is available at careers.mvhealthsystem.org.
Personal protective equipment (PPE)
MVHS said it reviews its supply of PPE (masks, gloves, gowns, etc.) “every single day,” and New York requires that all hospitals, including MVHS, have a 90-day supply of PPE. MVHS says it currently has “ample supplies.”
MVHS recently received 20,000 N95 respirators from Oneida County and will also get an additional 20,000 N95 respirators over the next 10 weeks, for a total of 40,000 masks.
The N95 respirator masks offer the “highest level of protection” for health-care workers caring for COVID-19 patients, MVHS said.
“Given the challenge of obtaining N95s throughout the year,” MVHS said employees and providers were asked to reuse masks using a sterilization process that was recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, given the supply that MVHS now has, “along with evolving science,” MVHS employees will no longer be reusing the N95s, as all employees will have a new mask that they will discard at the end of each day.
How community members can help
In her remarks, Stromstad also requested that all community members support the MVHS health-care workers by wearing a mask, washing their hands, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding indoor gatherings. The health-care workers at MVHS are “counting on the community” to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases and decrease hospitalizations, she added.
“The vaccine is coming, and we’re working on a distribution plan, which will begin in the next few weeks. We’ll follow CDC and state guidelines and start with the most at-risk population and the front-line health-care workers,” said Stromstad. “It will take months before enough people have been vaccinated for our country to again be safe and for us to resume our former lifestyles. So keep practicing your safe habits.”