Retaining frontline workers, a struggle amid omicron

BOSTON (AP) – Staff absences for COVID-19 tripled in London hospitals this month, and nearly 10% of the city’s firefighters said they were sick.

In New York City, about 2,700 police officers were absent earlier this week, double the number of people sick on average. And in Cape Cod, MA, grocer Judy Snarsky says she’s being pushed to the limit, working 50 hours a week and doing extra chores because her supermarket has around 100 employees when it is expected to have almost 150. .

“We don’t have enough hands. Everyone is working as hard as they can physically and mentally,” said the 59-year-old Mashpee. “Some of us traveled like a freight train.”

The global rise in coronavirus cases driven by the new omicron variant is the latest blow to hospitals, police departments, supermarkets and other critical operations struggling to maintain a full contingent of frontline workers as the pandemic enters its third year.

Governments have taken action to stem the bleeding in a range of jobs considered essential to society, from truck drivers and janitors to child care providers and train drivers. But nurses and other workers fear that persistent staffing issues could put the public at risk and increase burnout and fatigue in their ranks.

Seattle officer Mike Solan, who heads his city’s police union, said his service was down by about 300 officers from his usual strength of 1,350.

“It is difficult for our community because they are waiting for this cry for help,” he said. “And then we’re in danger because we don’t have the proper security numbers to have a safe working environment when we answer that call for help.”

Michelle Gonzalez, a nurse at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, said she and her colleagues in the intensive care unit never really had a break from COVID-19, and that the arrival of omicron had only woken up his post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Before I work I get really bad anxiety,” she said. “If I’ve been away for two days I’ll come back in a panic because I don’t know what I’m walking in.”

Countries like Spain and the UK have reduced the length of COVID-19 quarantines to alleviate staff shortages by allowing people to return to work sooner after testing positive or exposed to the virus. The United States has done the same for health care workers only.

FILE - Emergency nurse Brian Stephen leans against a porch as he takes a break from work at Brooklyn Hospital Center on Sunday, April 5, 2020, in New York City.  The global spike in coronavirus cases brought on by the new omicron variant is the latest blow to already strained hospitals, nursing homes, police departments and supermarkets struggling to maintain a full contingent of nurses, police and staff. other essential workers as the pandemic enters its third year.  (AP Photo / Kathy Willens, file)

Meanwhile, in the United States, states such as Massachusetts have called in hundreds of National Guard members to help fill gaps in hospitals and nursing homes, where they serve meals, transport patients and perform other non-clinical work.

In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan vowed to veto legislation repealing a $ 4 per hour risk premium increase for grocers, which has been in place for nearly a year in some major cities. from the West Coast, including Los Angeles, Berkeley and Long Beach, California.

“Now is not the time to cut the wages of these essential frontline workers,” the Democratic mayor said earlier this week.

Unions representing healthcare workers complain that far too many hospitals have failed to fill vacancies or retain staff tired by the pandemic.

For example, there are 1,500 vacant nursing positions at New York’s three largest hospitals, about double the number at the start of the pandemic, said Carl Ginsberg, spokesperson for the New York State Nurses Association. , which has 42,000 members.

“There aren’t enough nurses to do the job properly, so there are situations where units have dangerous conditions, where patients are in danger,” he said.

FILE - Police patrol the Line A subway train bound for Inwood on Saturday, February 13, 2021, in New York.  The global spike in coronavirus cases brought on by the new omicron variant is the latest blow to already strained hospitals, nursing homes, police departments and supermarkets struggling to maintain a full contingent of nurses, police and staff. other essential workers as the pandemic enters its third year.  (AP Photo / Bebeto Matthews, file)

In London, the UK’s omicron epicenter, a wave of staff absences is hitting hospitals just as COVID-19 admissions have doubled in three weeks. The latest wave will likely persist until mid-January, officials said.

“It wouldn’t take much to cause a crisis,” said David Oliver, a medical consultant at a hospital in south-east England.

Nursing home operators in the United States, who were crippled by some of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks at the start of the pandemic, are among those calling on authorities to do more.

Although cases in long-term care facilities have not yet increased sharply, the industry is bracing for omicron with 15% fewer workers today than at the start of the pandemic, said Rachel Reeves, spokesperson for the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living, an industry trade group.

Nursing homes have historically struggled to compete with other healthcare operators because their pay rates are effectively set by the government, she said. Providers are therefore hoping that President Joe Biden’s administration can increase Medicaid funding and create staff recruitment and retention programs.

“The caregivers are exhausted,” Reeves said. “Not only have many suffered tremendous losses, it has been exhausting – physically and emotionally – fighting this virus day in and day out.”

Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan provides $ 350 billion to state and local governments to provide a ‘bounty’ for essential workers. States are also using other pandemic buckets of funds to bolster their workforce.

In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice said on Tuesday his administration would use $ 48 million of the state’s remaining CARES Act funds to recruit and train nurses to meet the goal of adding more than 2,000 new ones nurses over the next four years.

But it’s not just health systems that are warning of dire consequences and seeking more support.

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, was among those who called on the Biden administration to reduce the recommended COVID-19 quarantine times to five days, or risk further disruption to air travel. Delta, United and Lufthansa have canceled dozens of flights over the Christmas period as illnesses ravage flight crews.

Rail operators are also warning of sudden cancellations and other service issues as subways and suburban lines experience staff shortages linked to COVID-19.

In the UK, rail company LNER announced this week that it was canceling 16 trains a day until Christmas Eve. Transport for London, which operates the metro and employs around 28,000 people, has also warned of slowdowns as 500 frontline workers are off work due to COVID-19-related illness.

Even small businesses like restaurants and nail salons, which aren’t necessarily considered essential, are preparing to cut hours further or shut down briefly if the labor shortage worsens.

Manhattan restaurateur Bret Csencsitz said the labor shortage prompted him to cut seats and eliminate staples such as burgers and oysters from Gotham’s menu, which reopened the last month.

Trophy Brewing in Raleigh, North Carolina, has reduced its hours of operation and decided to close three of the company’s four sites early on New Years Eve, said David Lockwood, co-owner of the company.

In Washington, DC, DogMa Daycare & Boarding For Dogs said this week it was canceling all daycare until January 3 because several staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

Daniel Schneider, a Harvard professor specializing in low-income workers, said the public should keep in mind that essential workers just don’t have the luxury of working from home, as some Americans do.

“White collar workers need to appreciate the real risks these people are taking,” he said. “You can’t call the races from home. You cannot store shelves in your home. “

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D’Innocenzio reported from Sandwich, Massachusetts, and Calvan reported from New York. Associated Press editors Jill Lawless and Kelvin Chan in London; Josh Boak in Washington; Mike Sisak in New York; John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia; and Bryan Anderson in Raleigh, NC, contributed to this report.


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