Coinciding with increases in COVID-19 cases that dramatically outpace the springtime surge, Harford County hospitals are contending with staffing shortages that they expect to continue into the future.
At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Harford County Council, Colin Ward, vice president of population health and clinical integration for University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, said quarantine requirements and hospital workers’ own COVID-positive diagnoses were making staffing difficult, requiring the hospital to revisit its staffing and surge plans daily.
“This phenomena is new to the second surge and was not as much of a challenge in the spring,” he said. “Maintaining staffing required to meet this increase is a significant challenge and will likely remain so for some time.”
Harford’s two hospitals — Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace — are seeing an increase in COVID-19 patients “as well as a group of patients with respiratory symptoms that require the same precaution and work-up.”
In response, the hospitals are also changing their policy to require personnel working outside of clinical capacities to wear a face shield and goggles; regular eyeglasses will not qualify as sufficient eye protection anymore, Ward said.
Martha Mallonee, spokesperson for UCH, said Harford hospitals were “experiencing patient activity comparable to hospitals across the state,” Thursday morning, also noting that hospitals tend to be busy around this time of year.
“Beds are filling up with significant numbers of patients, and we are regularly revisiting our labor and surge plans,” she said. “We’re using multiple strategies to address staffing challenges, including redeploying personnel to areas of need, changing ratios, increasing recruiting efforts and offering opportunities for extra shifts.”
During the initial surge, the most COVID-19 patients Harford’s hospitals saw in a single day was 34, Ward said, but since November’s surge began, it has not been uncommon to see more than 50 COVID patients between the two locations.
As of Tuesday, there were 39 COVID-19 patients at Upper Chesapeake and 10 at Harford Memorial, County Executive Barry Glassman said in an interview. About a month ago, there were nine such patients at Upper Chesapeake and none at Harford Memorial, said the county executive, who receives regular updates from health officials in the county.
“That’s at five-fold increase that we’re tracking,” Glassman said.
One of the new programs, MarylandMedNow, will recruit workers for state hospitals, nursing homes, testing sites and vaccination clinics. Not all of those recruited will be licensed physicians or nurses; support staff is also needed for the sites. Additionally, Hogan urged colleges and universities to award students academic credits for health care work during the pandemic.
The county’s acting Health Officer Marcy Austin said the health department has been tracking its positivity rate, the number of deaths and hospitalizations across the state, the last of which has increased significantly in recent weeks.
When Austin presented to the county council Tuesday, Harford County had 6,160 cases, corresponding to 99 confirmed deaths. By Thursday, that number had risen to 6,294 and 102 deaths, according to state data.
Both Harford’s positivity rate and its new case rate continued to improve Thursday, to 7.22% and 29.08 cases per 100,000, down from the county’s two-week averages of 8.56% and 39.81 cases that Austin reported Tuesday.
Maryland saw 48 deaths related to coronavirus Thursday, the most in a single day since May, and reported 2,044 new cases, according to state data.
Austin told the council that a vaccine for the virus is expected to reach Maryland around Dec. 14, but that does not mean everyone will get one immediately. She was not sure the numbers in which the vaccine would arrive, and the likely first priority, she said, is vaccinating front-line medical workers.
“The general public probably won’t see it happening until next year,” she told the council.
Storing the vaccine long-term requires sub-zero freezers, which the county’s health department does not have. Ward said the freezers were hard to come by in light of news about the vaccine, but the hospital is currently looking into renting a sub-zero freezer and could consider storing doses for the health department if it has the space — along with helping vaccination efforts in other ways. The vaccines can be refrigerated for up to five days and still remain effective, Austin said.
Though those on the priority list will receive the vaccine first, Hogan said Maryland’s first round of vaccines will only be able to cover about half of front-line healthcare workers, though he hopes the number will ramp up. Austin echoed his point Tuesday.
“Although Maryland may receive the vaccine, logistical challenges will most likely prevent immediate vaccine administration to all priority groups,” Austin said.