Photo of a hospital bed from Unsplash.
Photo of a hospital bed from Unsplash.

Public health officials and healthcare workers are again sounding the alarm that Omaha faces a grim future if COVID-19 infections don’t slow.

The solution to stopping the spread lies in personal responsibility, according to the chief medical officers of the metro area’s largest healthcare systems. As for directed health measures and government restricting certain gatherings, that’s no longer on their minds.

“I would leave the political decisions to the politicians and to the health advisors in that spectrum,” said Dr. Bill Lydiatt, chief medical officer of Methodist Health Systems, following 13 seconds of silence after the question was asked on a Zoom meeting on Monday. “I think they understand what works best in terms of what our populous will adhere to.”

Douglas County reported a weekly average of 337 cases yesterday, more than double the peak from earlier in the pandemic. At the same time hospitalizations are increasing as are the number of patients in intensive care, according to chief medical officers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, CHI Health and Methodist Health System.

“We have the beds, we have equipment, medicines, masks, gowns, et cetera, but our staff are approaching their limits,” said Cary Ward, Chief Medical Officer of CHI Health. “We have 14 hospitals across the state, and they’re all very busy.”

Officials are worried that physical resources could become even more strained as flu season starts. 

To try and soften the impact, hospitals are again rolling back some elective surgeries as well as trying alternative staffing schedules and hiring more healthcare workers. In October, the state committed up to $40 million in CARES Act funding to support hospitals.

The primary resource healthcare officials worry about is staffing. In addition to dealing with an influx of cases, hospitals are also warning that staffing shortages, particularly among nurses, could lead to more issues if hospitals continue to fill. 

“We can manage a significant surge in COVID-19 patients,” Lydiatt said. “However, we cannot produce unlimited hospital capacity. We need your help.”

In 2017, Nebraska was projected to be 4,000 nurses short—20% of the total workforce—by 2020, according to the Nebraska Center for Nursing, a state government organization. The shortage has been an ongoing problem since 2000 when the Nebraska Legislature established the Nebraska Center for Nursing.

COVID-19 has made it worse. Alicia Dunlap, a nurse with CHI Health, said nurses come into work every day hearing a “Code blue,” meaning someone’s heart has stopped beating. They leave with the same message booming on the overhead speakers.

“It’s day in and day out,” she said.

Nurses already work long days, but the 12 hours they spend on the floor, wearing masks and personal protective equipment with little time for more than a 30 minute break, have gotten more dire. 

That was true in the beginning of the pandemic when so much was still unknown about the virus. It’s just as true now as healthcare workers continue adapting months into a pandemic.

And while 669 people have died and the state’s rate of transmission is only getting worse, Gov. Pete Ricketts has not responded with equally severe directed health measures. On Oct. 16 he announced the state would roll back to limiting indoor gatherings to 50%. Most businesses like bars and restaurants were allowed to continue 100% occupancy, however.

On Monday the chief medical officers of the state’s three largest healthcare providers said they couldn’t think of what they’d like the governor to do differently.

“Whatever’s going to be necessary to stop this is going to be the right answer,” Lydiatt said. “But I can tell you with 100% certainty I have enough on my plate. I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.”

Instead they want the community to know the virus is more active than ever in Omaha and across Nebraska. They repeated the same advice shared since the beginning of the pandemic: stay home if you feel sick, wear a mask, wash your hands and avoid situations that lead to higher rates of infection.

Nurses at CHI Health echoed similar thoughts. While they wished they didn’t have to receive the brunt of the pandemic for months and months on end, this is the work they signed up for. The hardest part is worrying that they might bring the virus back home and infect their families, Dunlap said. She and other nurses just ask that the community thinks of them and the situation inside Nebraska’s hospitals as the virus continues to spread.

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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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