North Dakota hospital executive: 'We really are in a crisis'

A top official at North Dakota's largest health system said his hospitals don't have the staff to deal with the surging number of COVID-19 cases.

“We really are in crisis,” Doug Griffin, vice president and medical officer of Sanford Health in Fargo, said during a recent briefing with local press. 

"It's really all about staffing. We are frequently calling staff, offering large amounts of incentives for them to work extra. ... We think this is the most dire staffing situation we've ever faced," Griffin said.

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Griffin said his hospital hired at least 150 travel or contract nurses from other areas and could "easily take" 200 to 300 more to be fully staffed. 

The shortage, which he attributes mostly to burnout, goes beyond nurses and extends to patient services, respiratory therapy and even "people who draw blood."

"At some point in time, even extra money isn't necessarily enough to get people to want to work extra. They have to live their lives too," Griffin said. 

During the COVID-19 surge in the fall of 2020, "it was our Super Bowl," Griffin said, and the staff rose to meet the occasion, working long hours trying to save patients' lives. When the vaccines started rolling out, he said the staff thought those days were over.

"Seeing it again, it brings back painful memories. There is a large level of frustration. Most of these people are unvaccinated. ... I think many of the staff are feeling this could have been prevented. We didn't have to be there," Griffin said. 

Griffin said Fargo is still about two to three weeks away from peak coronavirus cases, but Sanford's hospitals have been at capacity for weeks because of both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients.

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Sanford's Fargo hospital is reducing surgical capacity by 30 percent in response. Doctors, in consultation with their patients, are making the ultimate decisions about which procedures to delay, but "it could be your knee replacement, your hernia surgery, even your scheduled heart surgery."

All staffed ICU beds are full, Griffin said. The average age of hospitalization, including critical care, has dropped into the 50s, Griffin said, and 90 percent of the people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. 

Griffin also bemoaned the region's low vaccination rate and said the state's hands-off approach of pleading with people to get vaccinated isn't working.

"We still have a firm number of people that are entrenched, that don't want to receive the vaccine," Griffin said.