In May, the University of Virginia Health System sparked public outcry when it placed over 500 employees on furlough, citing millions of dollars in pandemic-related financial losses. Affected staff were out of work for up to three months, and were not paid.
Though some feared the staffing cuts would be extended, furloughs—along with pay reductions—finally came to an end on July 25 for the UVA Medical Center, and on August 16 for the School of Medicine.
“Everyone is back,” says Chief Operating Officer Wendy Horton. “Actually, because there was a pent-up…demand, now we’re really busy…we’re actually hiring.”
Hospital staff, which has been stretched thin for months, desperately await those new hires, say multiple employees.
“The whole time of COVID has been a time of staffing crisis at the hospital, because it took such a financial hit when they canceled elective surgeries,” says a nurse aide who works in various units. “Every unit at the hospital is short staffed, more often than not…[We] do not have enough nursing and support staff.”
“Everybody is really experiencing some type of staffing stressor,” says another nurse, who works in the COVID intensive care unit. In recent months, employees have been constantly shuffled around, and even after the shuffling, some units don’t have enough employees with the specific skills required to make things run smoothly.
As the pandemic rages on, even the hospital’s COVID unit has suffered from staffing shortages. At the beginning of the pandemic, employees from units with low patient count were brought into the coronavirus unit as support staff, explains the ICU nurse.
“But when the furlough ended in July, they had to send all of those people back, so that left a lot of holes for where we were having support staff,” the COVID ICU nurse says.
The COVID unit has also seen some staff leave for different posts, due to months of pandemic burnout. “The first three months of, ‘I hope my equipment works. I can’t see my family. The world is shutting down. My patients are dying alone’…That took a huge toll,” says the COVID ICU nurse.
The potential for internal coronavirus outbreaks at the hospital has only exacerbated staffing fears.
Around two weeks ago, a patient with complex medical problems from another facility came into the UVA hospital without any COVID-19 symptoms, but developed them within a few days and tested positive soon after. About a dozen employees who had come in contact with the patient were put into quarantine.
The “unit basically had to shut down,” says the nurse aide. “It wasn’t that patient’s fault. It was that staff had on inadequate PPE because it was not known that they were COVID positive.”
The employees completed their two-week quarantine at the beginning of this week. They were paid during their absence.
“As far as we know, no one has developed symptoms,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Reid Adams told C-VILLE on November 5. “People are at home finishing their quarantine, and we expect all or most of them will be back over the weekend.”
According to the nurse aide, there’s also been at least one coronavirus outbreak in the hospital that started with a staff member, who contracted it from the community.
“I was alarmed…I hadn’t heard anything about this outbreak among staff from any of the official university communications,” says the nurse aide. “I didn’t learn about it until I was there.”
“We do know that some employees have been exposed at home, and have developed symptoms and tested positive through the community,” says Adams. “The vast majority of our workforce that has tested positive are due to community exposures…not from care in the hospital.”
According to hospital spokesperson Eric Swensen, less than 7 percent of employees who’ve tested positive for COVID contracted it from the hospital.
Though these internal outbreaks have been more or less contained thus far, the constant threat is difficult for employees. They are also worried about the possibility of a dramatic spike in cases during the winter, putting an additional burden on the hospital’s limited staff.
“There’s definitely great anxiety among staff that it could get worse pretty soon,” says the nurse aide. “Our colleagues in Lynchburg are seeing [their] hospital fill up, and things are pretty bad down in Bristol too.”
And while UVA hospital is currently hiring, training new employees puts an additional burden on the current staff, explains the COVID ICU nurse. “That’s kind of a stressor there.”
To both recruit and retain staff, the nurse aide believes the administration needs to pay all of its employees more, and give them more authority.
“To really create stable staffing at this hospital, we just need to be spending more on labor. Also, decision making in the hospital is extremely top-down. Hospital workers need more power in these decision making processes.”
In light of the hospital’s situation, both employees urge the community to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing, and show appreciation to health care workers.
“If you know someone who works for the hospital system, tell them thank you,” says the COVID ICU nurse.