Repercussions of a pandemic

Brookings Health System photo: Night nurse Lindsey Thompson, RN, listens to patient care updates provided by day nurse Gladys Sterud, RN, during shift change on Brookings Hospital’s inpatient care unit. Team members like Thompson and Sterud have been working considerable overtime due to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Limited beds for patients in nursing homes and larger hospitals, the industry-wide health care workforce shortage, and the fear of what may possibly come next are severe stressors health care workers currently face. Brookings Health’s employees have started new programs to help peers cope with the strain and are asking the community to support Brookings Health System Foundation during the South Dakota Day of Giving next Tuesday. Monies raised will help fund resources for health care workers’ mental health and wellbeing.

Limited beds, workforce shortages, fear creating stress for local health care workers

BROOKINGS – A year ago during the holiday season, Brookings Health cared for its highest number of COVID-19 patients to date. Thanks to the vaccine and advancements in treatments, Brookings Hospital hasn’t housed as many critically ill COVID patients at one time this fall, but the effects of the pandemic are still at play.

“All across our region, beds and staff are short,” said Jaclyn Rauen, inpatient care director at Brookings Health System. This time last year Rauen was providing direct patient care. She was promoted in January and finds herself still working alongside her team this fall, helping them care for the constant influx of patients.

“The pandemic fight isn’t over. Hospital systems, including us, are still treating very ill COVID patients, the majority of whom are unvaccinated,” Rauen said. “On top of the steady stream of COVID patients, we’re also challenged by the fact that there are limited beds in nursing homes and larger tertiary hospitals. That makes it hard to get patients to the level of care they need. In turn it creates challenges with bed capacity and staffing in our own organization.”

For these reasons Brookings Health is currently deploying the Bed Management Plan for COVID-19 Surge Capacity developed at the start of the pandemic. The plan calls for repurposing other areas of the hospital to accommodate patient demand, something the health system is on the verge of doing.

“The industry is congested with patients, and it’s overwhelming the system, even at a local level,” Rauen said.

What also doesn’t help is the health care workforce shortage happening industry-wide. Earlier this year, South Dakota News Watch reported that more than 2,500 nurses dropped out of the state workforce. Need is also present in other health care occupations. According to South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organization’s career guide, 15 different health care occupations are projected to have a higher-than-average demand in South Dakota through 2022, including CNAs, radiologic technologists and EMTs and paramedics.

“Right now there’s the added stress on departments and staff are working considerable overtime,” Paramedic Wendy Long said. “Brookings Health System employees truly love their jobs and strive to give the best care they can to every patient and resident. But today’s environment is stretching our staff more than ever which is personally affecting our workforce.”

This fall Brookings Health employees started a new Peer Support Team which is led by Long and Same-Day Surgery Nurse Heather Coon, RN. The two recently attended further training for critical incident stress management (CISM) provided by the Warrior’s Rest Foundation and came away with tools to help their co-workers deal with the pressures from the pandemic and encourage them to stay in the workforce. 

“I think a lot of people are considering leaving health care because they didn’t recognize the stressors they were under and it snuck up on them,” Coon said. “They started to realize they couldn’t do this without some emotional and physical support. They started to think about their own well-being and how to re-energize their battery.”

“We have lost staff because they don’t want to go through another surge,” Long added. “It is very stressful, and the fear of what’s possibly to come is emotionally and mentally draining.” 

The old adage is health care is a calling. Health care workers tend to have a driving desire to help and care for patients and residents. But COVID-19 has upset that balance, and the inability to perform their job is driving some health care professionals to rethink their occupation.

To help refill team members’ buckets and keep them true to their calling, the initial program the Peer Support Team has implemented are “pulse checks.” Based on patient census and care provider to patient ratios, a department director can activate a pulse check when they are short staffed or have high volume. Members from the Peer Support Team follow-up with employees in that department and ask how they can help. 

“We are seeing the physical relaxation and smiles for the simplest things we are providing in just 30 to 45 minutes,” Coon said. “Even just filling in briefly so co-workers can go take a much-needed break. Giving a fellow staff member that half an hour can change the outlook on their day or week.”

Because of the small size of the Peer Support Team, they are currently focusing pulse checks on the Inpatient Care Unit and Emergency Department, areas within the hospital that see the highest number of COVID patients and those reaching capacity challenges. Eventually the team would like to extend pulse checks to the entire organization, including The Neighborhoods at Brookview nursing home, dietary and other ancillary clinical and administrative support departments.

“The pandemic has affected everyone,” Long said. “It’s not just the clinical staff. It’s trickled down to all departments. The Peer Support Team is really trying to prevent burnout and fill up people’s buckets again.”

Brookings Health System wants to implement additional mental health and wellness resources for staff such as onsite recharge rooms designed to address trauma, anxiety and stress health care workers face or access to meditation apps outside the workplace. To help fund these resources, Brookings Health System Foundation is focused on raising money for the cause on Nov. 30, South Dakota Day of Giving.

“We are asking our community to have empathy and compassion for our health care workers,” Foundation Director Sara Schneider said. “While as a society nothing will ever be enough to thank this generation of healthcare professionals for what they have selflessly sacrificed and endured, we still must honor and support them. Donations made to Brookings Health System Foundation during the Day of Giving will help our team members remain resilient and stay true to their calling.”

Individuals interested in giving to the South Dakota Day of Giving campaign may do so by visiting brookingshealth.org/SDGives. Funds raised will make a direct impact on health system employees battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our health care team has fought a tough battle these last two years,” Rauen said. “They’ve worked long hours and extra shifts caring for critical patients. They’ve been pulled away from taking time for themselves and their families in order to selflessly give back to others. It’s taken a huge toll on our workforce. To say they are tired is an understatement. They need to know the community is still behind them.”

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