Baptist Memorial remains stable as federal contract expires

Published 3:29 pm Monday, November 8, 2021

Mississippi health care providers say they may have to close floors and reduce patient beds after losing hundreds of nurses due to the recent expiration of a federal contract put in place to help the state battle the coronavirus pandemic.

During the last wave of COVID-19, 900 nurses were deployed to hospitals across the state under a 60-day contract funded by the federal government. That contract expired Nov. 1 and the number of virus cases has subsided since the summer peak.

Those nurses were crucial for caring for patients during the virus surge, but they also helped fill another urgent need — filling gaps left by nurses who have left the state during the last two years.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in August that the state had lost at least 2,000 nurses over the course of the pandemic. Nurses are leaving Mississippi for other states and traveling nurse companies that can pay higher wages.

Jessica Lewis, executive director of human resources at Singing River Health System on the Mississippi coast, told the Sun Herald that Singing River has lost around 240 nurses during the pandemic.

The expiration of the federal contract will mean the hospital system is losing 70 staff positions and 100 hospital beds.

“It’s just a big taffy pull … everyone is scurrying out there trying to get the talent and keep their doors open,” Lewis told the Herald.

Singing River joined 17 other major health systems, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn in writing an Oct. 21 letter to Reeves asking for further assistance to address the nursing shortage using federal pandemic relief money allocated to the state.

“We are asking that you set aside a portion of those funds to quickly establish a program to incent health care workers, particularly nurses, to remain in and return to their hospitals,” the letter reads.

Where other hospitals are facing challenges due to the nursing shortage, a representative with Baptist Memorial Hospital North Mississippi said the hospital is not experiencing the state of emergency they once were months ago.

“Like many other hospitals, Baptist has experienced nursing turnover during the past two years,” said Baptist’s Director of Marketing and Provider Relations Jondi Roberson. “However, we have been fortunate to have adequate staffing to continue providing safe care. We are grateful for the health care workers who have been tirelessly caring for our community since March 2020. We were extremely grateful for additional staffing support provided by MEMA, especially during high volume periods.”

Baptist utilized the additional nurses and respiratory therapists to help expand capacity in order to take on an almost 40% increase in patients during the height of the most recent COVID-19 pandemic surge.

“To ensure that we can always provide high-quality care, we review staffing on a daily basis and we adjust staffing accordingly,” said Roberson. “For example, we have reduced our capacity with the reduced patient load demand as this last COVID-19 surge has declined.”

COVID-19 cases and hospitals have declined and stabilized much to the relief of the public, but health officials worry for hospital capacity once winter comes and flu season begins. COVID-19 and it’s subsequent surges have strained not only the healthcare system but healthcare providers.

Roberson said Baptist and its employees are ready to get the healthcare system back to normal, but they are prepared in case of any emergency.

“We can’t predict the future but Baptist North Mississippi is prepared and ready to care for the needs of the community,” she said. “We are continuing to monitor patient volumes and have contingency plans in place so that we can respond to another COVID surge if necessary. We are hopeful that with the increase in vaccinations in the area, the next surge will not be as high as previous peaks.”

In a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Nov. 3, Reeves’ spokesperson Bailey Martin said the contract nurses were only permitted to work with coronavirus patients, per federal regulations. At the peak of the surge, there were 1,667 Mississippians in hospital beds with COVID-19, she said. As of Tuesday, that number decreased by almost 90% to 172.

“The contract fulfilled its mission,” she said, adding that Reeves believes it is critically important to increase the number of workforce development opportunities for health care professionals.

“The Governor’s Office is discussing nurse retention programs with the legislature and looking forward to working with them to devise a solution that will have a long-term impact on meeting Mississippi’s healthcare professional needs,” she said.

“We are safe, equipped and ready to continue providing high-quality care for the community,” said Roberson. “The hospital continues to meet the needs of our patients. All of our team members are glad that this latest surge has declined.