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MUSC, short 1,500 nurses during COVID-19 surge, gets $5M from state

Covid-19 Nurses

Rebecca Hale, a registered nurse with the Medical University of South Carolina, works in the hospital's COVID-19 unit. South Carolina hospitals are experiencing staff shortages as they try to manage a swell of cases across the state. File/Sarah Pack/MUSC/Provided

As it stares down an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases and the state's largest-ever vaccination campaign, the Medical University of South Carolina is short 1,500 nurses.

Lawmakers are stepping in to help with a $5 million influx to help keep nurses in place at MUSC's hospitals in Charleston, Lancaster, Chester, Marion and Florence. 

The Joint Bond Review Committee, a panel of legislators that reviews major expenditures, approved a request Friday to free up the money "for recruitment bonuses and retention incentives for our most acute nursing staffing needs." 

In other words, MUSC will use the funding both to keep nurses it has on staff and to hire new ones. System-wide, MUSC's payroll totals about 17,000 workers.

Coronavirus (copy)

Dr. David Cole (right), president of MUSC, described the health system's nursing shortage as "acute." File/Brad Nettles/Staff

"As you know, MUSC Health is faced with acute nursing shortages on top of chronic nurse staffing needs brought on by the many dimensions of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic," Dr. David Cole, president of MUSC Health, wrote in a letter to Gov. Henry McMaster requesting the funds. "This, of course, includes ICU nurses and staff."

The source of funds is the COVID-19 Response Reserve Account, which the state created in May.

MUSC's staffing shortage is indicative of a broader problem across the state as surging coronavirus cases have taken hold in South Carolina. With hospitals everywhere clamoring for trained health care professionals, some in South Carolina have been able to find more lucrative contracts elsewhere.

Mark Sweatman, director of government relations for MUSC, said the system's turnover rate is more than 20 percent. In years past, 12 percent to 14 percent was typical. 

"This has been a problem since the pandemic started," Sweatman said. 

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It's a bigger issue now. In describing the stress hospitals are facing, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said they're close to capacity and that emergency departments are already "overwhelmed."

Meanwhile, McMaster issued a request to the South Carolina Hospital Association on Friday asking medical centers across the state to scale back on elective procedures and all non-essential care. He cited the "growing public demand for increased and expedited access to vaccinations."

In the Upstate, Prisma Health called in medics with the National Guard to help staff a 15-bed COVID-19 recovery unit at its Laurens County Hospital. 

Even as South Carolina sees some of its highest-ever numbers of coronavirus cases, MUSC and Prisma have each said they hope to be able to vaccinate 10,000 people a day. That effort will create its own staffing challenges.

DHEC made a call-out on Wednesday for applicants to fill at least 150 "critical positions" that include nurses, paramedics, pharmacists and other jobs.

Dr. Danielle Scheurer, chief quality officer at MUSC, said the system is also seeking volunteers to help manage vaccines.

She said workers are eager to be involved in the historic inoculation campaign, but the task is getting more challenging now that shots are available to people 70 and older. The number of patients MUSC is managing each day has doubled to about 10,000.

"You can imagine the constraints on every part of the system," she said. "It is literally double the work."

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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