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Kentucky faces critical medical staffing shortages as COVID cases surge

September 16, 2021, 5:24 PM UTC

As the battle against COVID-19 and the Delta variant rages on, Kentucky is experiencing a shortage in health care workers. About 60% of its hospitals were experiencing critical staffing shortages as of Wed. Sept 15, the highest rate in the country.

With 96 average daily cases per 100,000 people, Kentucky has the fourth highest rate of COVID cases in the country, and its intensive care units are running out of capacity. More than 90% of the state’s ICU beds are filled according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As a result, many hospitals are canceling elective procedures and converting operating rooms into ICUs.

“What it means is if you are injured, it means you’re going to have a hard time finding an ER that can take you. If you have a heart attack, you may be waiting in the ambulance for hours,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear in a briefing.

As the COVID situation worsens in the state and salaries remain stagnant, some nurses have turned to “travel nursing” in which they work for an agency and provide support to overwhelmed hospitals on a contract, usually for higher pay.

Some hospital workers have also quit because they do not want to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as some hospitals are requiring. Twenty-seven plaintiffs are suing St. Elizabeth, the largest health care provider in northern Kentucky, to try to get the hospital to overturn its vaccine mandate for employees.

In light of the staffing shortages, at least 400 national guard members are being deployed to Kentucky hospitals to assist with logistical and administrative support.

Kentucky has fully vaccinated 59% of its population above 12 years old and 69% in that same group has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

To prevent the spread of the virus, Gov. Beshear instituted a mask mandate early last month for teachers, staff, and students in K-12 schools, but canceled it before August ended.

As reason for canceling the mandate, Beshear poined to a state Supreme Court decision that allows the state legislature to limit the governor’s power to enact emergency orders related to the pandemic.

As Thanksgiving approaches, Beshear is asking people to encourage their family members to get vaccinated to combat the health crisis.

“I am asking you to break the Thanksgiving dinner rule and have a tough conversation with those you love and care about who are hesitant to get the vaccine,” said Gov. Beshear in a press release. “It won’t be easy. But they are more likely to listen to a friend or family member, and that one conversation could save their life.”

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