Finding the Balance: Planning for COVID Surges and Recoveries

Cross Country Healthcare
August 26, 2021 05:52 AM (GMT-04:00)

As COVID cases began to subside, and we all focused on a flattening of the curve, the Delta variant was busy throwing us a curve ball – with a surge in cases due to Delta’s higher transmission rate and lower-than-expected vaccination numbers.

Unfortunately, as of late August 2021, hospital admissions were back up and were rapidly approaching January 2021 numbers (CDC). Further, only about 60% of Americans ages 12 and up were fully vaccinated, and in some states vaccination rates were below 40% (Becker’s). Some within the scientific community predict that the Delta variant may peak and burn out more quickly than its predecessors; however, there is a great deal of speculation about the variant’s timeline.

3 Trends to Consider When Planning for COVID Surges and Recoveries

We are far from being able to return to “normal.” However, as health systems and hospitals continue to grapple with the clinical and financial implications of widespread COVID-19 cases, many are now beginning to see the need for a strategic approach to planning that involves balancing COVID surges with periods of recovery. It may be overly optimistic to assume this will be the last major surge, and we may be dealing with COVID variants well into the future. Therefore, leaders are looking for ways to plan for balancing alternating closures with resumption of services.

With this in mind, we’ve compiled several trends that we saw with past reopenings and that we will likely start to see again as the healthcare industry – yet again – gets closer to a new normal on the other side of the Delta variant surge.

Pausing and Resuming Elective Surgeries.

As of late August 2021, many facilities were once again delaying elective surgeries due to a rise in COVID cases. This time, however, providers have chosen to be more selective about identifying procedures as “elective,” as many patients who had delayed treatment last time arrived in worse condition (Statnews).

On the other side of the Delta surge, as local and federal government officials carefully weigh any moves to “open up” their states and the nation, one of the key considerations will be lifting the restrictions on elective surgeries with possible future surges in mind.

There will be need for physicians and nurses to be prepared to shift between their surgery function and deployment to handle the pandemic. In addition, facilities will need to adjust their staffing model and resources as the patient demand and accessibility changes over time.

Potential Return to Standard Pay Rates.

There has been a nationwide call for travel nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic to help meet surge demands. These heroes have answered the call in great numbers, putting their own lives and wellbeing at risk. As such, with the demand comes increases in pay rates for those willing to care for patients under conditions of extreme risk.

Across the U.S. – especially in states such as California, New York and Washington – crisis pay for travel nurses is at record highs. In fact, travel nurse pay nationwide has risen by 76% and has gone up as much as 90% in Washington State – the original hotspot of COVID-19 patients. Further, the healthcare industry news site HIT Consultant states that “Hospitals are paying crisis/pandemic rates up to $4,400 weekly to quickly staff up for the caring of COVID-19 patients and pay for emergency department nurses has almost quadrupled with the spread.”

While the increase in pay is needed and well-deserved for these invaluable healthcare providers, there have been financial impacts on facilities and healthcare systems. The high price of filling the COVID-19 staffing void is another financial hit for hospitals already losing revenue after canceling scheduled surgeries, outpatient visits and other lucrative procedures in an effort to limit the virus’ spread.

As the crisis demand for travel nurses begins to diminish for hospitals and systems who are on the other side of a flattening curve, there is a likelihood that pay rates will decrease back to normal levels. According to Hank Drummond, Chief Clinical Officer at Cross Country Healthcare, “Those travel nurses who have quite literally sacrificed their life and wellbeing in order to serve this country and its citizens in an unprecedented time of need have certainly earned the right for higher pay during this time.

“It is important to prepare for future changes in pay rates as the basic laws of supply and demand take effect post-pandemic. As we begin to win this fight against COVID-19, and the healthcare industry begins to return to the pre-pandemic supply and demand levels for talent, we may see pay rates change alongside it.”

More Emergency Department Visits.

Hospital emergency rooms (ERs) have remained open during the pandemic, but patients, even those with serious health conditions, don’t seem to be using them. A survey of nine major hospitals earlier this month showed the number of severe heart attacks being treated in U.S. hospitals had dropped by nearly 40% since the COVID-19 virus took hold in March. Patients are fearful of entering hospitals amid the pandemic, some calling it “a virus of fear.”

And it’s not just heart patients who are avoiding going to the hospital. At USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, overall ER patient volume was down 40% to 50%. The facility is seeing COVID-19 related cases, but all the rest of the chest pains, abdominal pains and other complaints they are used to seeing on an everyday basis has dropped significantly.

The decline isn’t just being driven by fear of catching the virus. The number of injuries across the country has fallen as most people stay home – resulting in fewer accidents and other injuries. There’s also some public confusion over the cancellation of elective procedures, according to CNBC.

As the country deals with alternating surges and recoveries due to the virus, fears of going to the ER may vacillate, affecting overall patient volume. It will be critical for hospitals to prepare and plan for fluctuating workforce needs. Hospitals will need to look at ways to retain their ER workforce and ensure they don’t lose that capacity.

We Are Still in This.

Hospitals and healthcare providers can balance the need to prepare for a return to a new normal with the realization that this pandemic may be far from over. At Cross Country Healthcare, we remain committed to helping our valued clients and healthcare providers navigate this ever-changing environment. If you need assistance, please contact us.

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