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Ricketts declares staffing emergency in Nebraska hospitals

August 26, 2021 GMT
FILE - Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts speaks Feb. 26, 2021 during a news conference at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. The new draft of the proposed standards from the Nebraska Department of Education came after agency officials faced intense criticism from parents, school boards, state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who held town hall events to blast the proposal. (Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star via AP File)
FILE - Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts speaks Feb. 26, 2021 during a news conference at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. The new draft of the proposed standards from the Nebraska Department of Education came after agency officials faced intense criticism from parents, school boards, state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who held town hall events to blast the proposal. (Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star via AP File)
FILE - Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts speaks Feb. 26, 2021 during a news conference at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. The new draft of the proposed standards from the Nebraska Department of Education came after agency officials faced intense criticism from parents, school boards, state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who held town hall events to blast the proposal. (Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star via AP File)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s hospitals are even more crowded now than they were at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in November, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday as he announced a “staffing emergency” to try to address a severe shortage of health care workers.

The state’s hospitals were treating a 3,162 patients as of Wednesday, up from 3,074 on Nov. 20, when the number of known cases was at its all-time high.

Most of the recent hospitalizations aren’t virus-related, however, and Ricketts said the increase was driven by patients seeking treatment for other medical problems. According to state data, hospitals are currently treating 337 virus patients — about 11% of total hospitalizations. In November, the hospitals counted 987 virus patients, accounting for 32% of hospitalizations.

Ricketts said he declared the emergency after consulting with the state’s hospital administrators. But he stopped short of calling it a “COVID-19” emergency, which would allow the state to once again disclose daily case information.

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Nebraska stopped publishing daily information in July, but now releases weekly data without as much detail. Ricketts announced the end of the official state virus emergency in late June.

“The reason we’re not doing a COVID emergency is because this is a hospital staffing emergency. We’re being very specific,” Ricketts said at a news conference, noting the increase in non-virus hospitalizations.

Some health officials have been critical of the decision to stop releasing the detailed information, arguing that it makes it harder to track the the virus and potentially slow its spread.

“We are in many ways flying blind,” said Dr. James Lawler, one of the leaders of the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

The new staffing emergency waives various state licensing and education requirements for health care workers to try to encourage more people to take jobs at Nebraska hospitals. Ricketts said it will continue through at least the end of the year.

The Republican governor also issued a health order, effective Monday, that will require hospitals to limit certain non-essential surgeries that can be postponed four or more weeks to ease pressure on health care workers.

Ricketts said state officials will “continue to monitor the situation and take other steps as appropriate,” but declined to give specifics. He said the number of non-virus patients is likely up because of people who had postponed medical treatment earlier in the pandemic.

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He also repeated his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, although he has repeatedly urged residents to get vaccinated voluntarily and said that vaccines are safe and effective. The state denied Douglas County’s request to impose a mask requirement earlier this week.

Ricketts said his administration would continue to focus on hospital capacity, as it has throughout the pandemic. He said the goal is to ensure that hospitals beds and ventilators are available for anyone who needs one, and the state has consistently met that benchmark.

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