Health care workers’ vaccinations alleviate staffing problems at hospitals

Back in December, before the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines became widely available, Pittsburgh-region hospitals — along with elsewhere in the state — were feeling the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic not only in the rising hospitalizations but also increasing numbers of staff members who were either out due to having Covid-19 or quarantine due to exposures.

It was so prevalent that hospitals were concerned with being able to have enough staff to meet the community’s needs, with more than one hospital cutting back on elective procedures and surgeries to redeploy staff. The state even tied staffing to whether it would require a rollback of elective procedures, although that was never put into place across the Pittsburgh region.

Fast forward about two months and the region’s hospital workers have been offered and received the vaccine. That and another factor have taken off the table much of the risk of Covid-19 in terms of staffing, hospital officials say.

“Vaccinating the health care workers has helped address our staffing issues,” said Dr. Donald Whiting, chief medical officer of the Allegheny Health Network and president of the Allegheny Clinic.

In a recent interview, Whiting said that the vaccine rollout — and the declining amount of Covid-19 cases in the community and corresponding drop in hospitalizations — have all played a role. AHN on Tuesday cited the vaccinations and declining Covid case rates as reasons that they slightly eased up on pandemic-related visitation.

“The decrease in cases and the decrease in our employees being out have definitely been paralleling each other,” Dr. Brian Parker, chief quality and learning officer at AHN, said Wednesday. He also believes the state’s mitigation efforts in December had a role in reducing cases and hospitalizations.

It’s that way at other hospital systems as well. The majority of the exposures to Covid-19 did not happen in the hospital setting, where extensive PPE and policies have kept employees safe. Instead, the exposures occurred for the most part out in the community, where the SARS-CoV-2 virus was rampant for many weeks in the fall and into the winter.

UPMC averaged 2,000 out of 90,000 employees out on quarantine at any one time during December’s height of the pandemic. Now it’s about 400. Spokeswoman Taylor Andres said UPMC sees the rollout of the vaccination helping a lot and will expect that number to continue to fall as employees get their second doses. UPMC has inoculated about two-thirds of its staff with the rest either declining, wanting to wait or not responding to the invitation.

The trend continued at Heritage Valley Health System, based in Beaver County.

“We went from having days where we had well over 100 people home being quarantined from an exposure or having Covid down to 15 or 20, if that,” said Norm Mitry, president and CEO of Heritage Valley Health System. “It’s pretty much gone away as an issue.”

St. Clair Hospital had between 2% and 3% of its workforce quarantined in December due to Covid exposure, again, most it not all from out in the community. Dr. John Sullivan, St. Clair’s chief medical officer, said that it’s gone down to seasonal levels. He’s informed every time a member of the staff gets a positive Covid test and it’s been a long time since that’s happened, since about 10 days after the first round of vaccinations.

St. Clair has about 80% of its workforce vaccinated. He said that it’s a compelling case to help convince others who haven’t gotten the shot to do so.

Parker said about 60% of AHN’s employees have been vaccinated, but that’s likely to go higher. Some of the employees had either been quarantined or exposed to the virus and weren’t able to get it in the first rounds. The CDC recommends a 90-day waiting period for people who had the virus to get vaccinated.