FILE - Hospital beds

(The Center Square) – New Mexico’s health care sector hasn’t been spared from the worker shortage.

Troy Clark, president and CEO of the New Mexico Hospital Association, which represents 47 hospitals in the state, said COVID-19 is adding cases on top of an already full system.

“We actually have the physical capacity to take care of more patients in our hospitals – that we have beds to put them in, but we don’t have staff to cover those beds,” he told The Center Square.

As of four weeks ago, NMHA members had over 450 beds across the state that they are unable to staff.

Clark stated that 12% of the workforce currently in their hospitals is made up of traveling nurses and technicians, while another 17% of positions are going unfilled.

“That means currently we have an unfilled need of 17%, but really, from an ongoing basis, we are sitting at 30% of our workforce that is not here permanently or is unfilled,” he said.

Although the official data isn’t in yet, Clark said they have been surprised to see quality of care markers staying steady.

“We expected to see an increase in the number of patient falls, an increase in the number of infections, a decrease in patient experience, but the initial numbers are not proving that out,” he said. “It’s actually been remarkable that the care has been maintained at the level it is.”

The toll on nursing staff has been substantial, however.

With so many positions empty, those employed are under a heavy burden of work, Clark said. And while they are grateful for those travelers who choose to work in New Mexico, Clark points out they require extra support as they familiarize themselves with each new facility.

In addition, many nurses have been forced to cover areas of care they were not originally trained to cover nor did they choose, which Clark notes adds additional stress.

“So you pile on all the extra shifts that they’re asked to work because we don’t have enough nurses, you pile on the emotional burden of experiencing things they are not trained for and they’re not expecting, and the emotional burden of not being able to meet the needs of their community, you have a lot of fatigue and emotional strain on your nursing staff,” he said.

Clark said they are working to address the staffing problem.

Short term, hospitals are working to be more competitive in retaining traveling staff in New Mexico as well as recruiting those positioned out of state to come, he said.

Hospitals hope a medium term solution is in speeding up the visa process to approve overseas nurses to come and work in New Mexico. To that end, Clark said they were successful in getting that visa process moved back up to priority one.

Education is the long game for hospitals. Out-of-state recruits tend to stay for a maximum of three to four years, according to Clark, so they are focusing on attracting “homegrown New Mexicans” into the healthcare labor force. Clark said one such effort is coming from the New Mexico Nursing Association, which is working on a proposal to send to the governor and legislature for funding to increase enrollment capacity for nursing programs in the state.