DC leaders, hospital association to discuss solutions to staffing shortages as ‘perfect storm’ looms

D.C. government officials and the city’s hospital association are scheduled to meet later this week to discuss the staffing shortages that are resulting in crowding and long wait times across the city.

Wayne Turnage, the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services, said at a news conference at a vaccine clinic in Adams Morgan on Tuesday that D.C. hospitals are facing a “perfect storm” in healthcare.

He said it’s the result of a staffing shortage that started before the pandemic and has since become worse, particularly among nurses; a rise in respiratory illnesses such as flu and RSV, which often circulate more widely during the winter months, and a rise in D.C. residents visiting local hospitals for what he called “low acuity problems.”

As a result, Turnage said, many people who show up to hospitals may be waiting “almost into the next day.”

That increase in wait times “also has adversely impacted the drop off times for our emergency vehicles, and then this effectively reduces the number of emergency vehicles that we will have on the street at any given time, because it’s taking them longer to drop off patients at the hospital,” he said.

Turnage and several others are scheduled to meet with the D.C. Hospital Association on Thursday “to discuss possible policy changes that may require the mayor’s review and approval — and it may require legislation, should the mayor decide she’s going to move something forward.”

Sharon Lewis, DC Health’s interim director, said the city is not currently considering declaring a public health emergency, which gives hospitals flexibility in how they operate. In January, with the omicron variant of the coronavirus surging, Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a limited public health emergency. That allowed city hospitals to suspend elective procedures and hire staff members who are licensed in other states.

D.C. residents can best protect themselves, Turnage said, by getting the latest bivalent COVID-19 vaccine and a flu shot. D.C. remains in the low community transmission level for COVID-19, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, and Lewis said the city’s health department is not “recommending to mandate mask wearing.”

Hospitals, Turnage said, are “witnessing very sharp increases in the number of persons who need treatment for flu (and RSV)” and a slight uptick in COVID-19 infections or reinfections.

To keep up with demand, Lewis said, some D.C. hospitals “have had to resort to contract services to continue to support.”

The staffing challenges aren’t unique to D.C. A Maryland health department spokesman said the state is also experiencing staffing issues. Gov. Larry Hogan has ordered hospitals to spend $25 million in new funds to increase staff sizes and bed access.

WTOP has contacted the Virginia Department of Health to inquire about similar initiatives.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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