As hospital numbers keep falling, Senate again calls for special session on staffing shortages; Beshear says more work needed

Ky. Dept. for Public Health graph shows relative risk of coronavirus infection. To enlarge, click on it.

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

State Senate President Robert Stivers sent Gov. Andy Beshear a letter today, asking him to call a special session to address health-care staffing shortages that continue even as the pandemic slowly wanes. Beshear said more work needs to be done before a session, which only he can call.

“I think I was pretty clear that if we’re gonna call a special session, they need to come meet with me, and I got a letter,” Beshear said at his weekly news conference. “Also, no indication there has been any discussions whatsoever with the House. Again, the serious work that’s required for a special session doesn’t appear to have really been started in earnest, much less done. And we need to see a lot more.”
Sen. Robert Stivers

Stivers’ letter opened with a response to comments Beshear made Sept. 20 that no plan had been put in front of him to address the issue and no one had asked to meet with him about it. “In fact,” Stivers wrote, Senate Bill 8 of the recent special session laid out a plan to use $81 million of American Rescue Plan Act money, and there had been staff-to-staff discussion on whether Beshear could amend the special-session all to allow it.

Beshear has said that all the ARPA money had been appropriated. Stivers’ letter walks through several possible funding scenarios, including use of coronavirus relief money that will arrive during the current fiscal year and using the state’s Budget Reserve Trust Fund, usually called the “rainy day fund.”

“In short, the funding is there,” Stivers wrote, closing with a statement that the Senate is “ready to work with you on this issue.” The Senate and House are controlled by Republicans; Beshear is a Democrat.

Beshear said he has been talking to hospital groups about the staffing issue and remains unconvinced that funding from the state would solve the problem as opposed to escalating an “arms race with these different private nursing and other services.”

Hospital officials have said traveling-nurse staffing companies are paying their nurses upwards of $200 an hour, a rate they can’t compete with.

Beshear said 63 of Kentucky’s 96 acute-care hospitals report critical staffing shortages. He listed some of the many ways the state has helped hospitals throughout the pandemic, including an additional $1.8 million in Medicaid reimbursements, and said it would continue direct calls with them.

Beshear responds to Stivers’ letter

“But you know, there’s policymaking and there’s politics in Frankfort,” he said. “I’ve shown that I can sit down and work with anyone and I’m willing to, but they have to be willing to sit down too. I’m still told that the written plan is the bill that was previously filed. Again, that doesn’t show where the money is coming from, which is really, really important.”

The proposal to use federal money to boost staffing in health-care facilities would be a short-term fix for a nagging problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Hospital leaders called for a long-term approach to the problem in a meeting in Louisville today with White House Vaccinations Coordinator Bechara Choucair, coordinated by the Kentucky Primary Care Association.

“The shortage has been an issue in health care for many years before the pandemic, and although the current climate has highlighted these problems, a short-term solution will not solve the overall staffing shortage,” the Kentucky Hospital Association said in a news release.

Covid-19 numbers in Kentucky hospitals dropped again Thursday. They reported 1,976 patients with the disease, down 19 from Wednesday; 566 in intensive care, down seven; and 381on mechanical ventilation, down three.

Seven of the state’s hospital regions are using more than 90% of their intensive care unit beds, with Northern Kentucky at 100%.

The governor called the declining numbers “generally good news,” but cautioned that there are still a lot of Kentuckians dying from this virus. Kentucky reported 53 more Covid-19 deaths on Thursday, bringing the death toll to 8,770 and the average for the last seven days to 43.4 per day.

“This thing is deadlier than ever,” Beshear said. “If you are unvaccinated it is incredibly deadly. And it’s taken so many people.  Please don’t make it take a family member before you’re willing to get vaccinated. Because if you’re willing to get vaccinated, it is still incredible protection against illness, against hospitalization and against death.”

From March 1 through Wednesday, 86.2% of coronavirus cases, 92.4% of Covid-19 hospital cases and 84.5% of Covid-19 deaths have been in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Kentuckians.

Daily numbers: The state reported 2,510 new coronavirus cases Thursday, bringing the seven-day average down 227 to 3,051, the lowest since Aug. 18.

The percentage of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus in the last week increased a but, to 10.08%. This is the first day this rate’s gone up in 22 days. The rate can be affected by the number of tests; today’s daily report showed fewer tests than Wednesday’s.

Kentucky’s infection rate over the last seven days dropped to sixth among the states, according to The New York Times.

The state reported an infection rate of 60.34 daily cases per 100,000 residents. Counties with rates more than double that rate are Whitley, 141.4; McCreary, 131.8; Harlan, 129.1; and Owsley, 123.0.

Dept. for Public Health map, relabeled by Ky. Health News; colors
denote area development districts; each must have at least one center.

Treatment: Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack announced that the state launched a new webpage today that provides information about monoclonal antibody treatments and includes a map of 51 monoclonal-antibody treatment-administration centers across the state.

Stack cautioned that supplies of the treatment are limited, while Covid-19 vaccinations are more readily available.

“So when you contact a site, they’re going to use the current Food and Drug Administration criteria for who are the highest risk and the most in need, and they’re going to use that coupled with their supply to determine prioritization and who can get the treatment at that time,” he said. “Obviously, the hope is the disease will go down, we’ll need less of this and everybody who needs it will have access. That’s the hope. At the moment, that’s not the reality.”

Beshear spoke more bluntly about the limited supply, saying, “Let me just say this, you cannot count on them to save your life if you are unvaccinated. . . . So please get vaccinated.”

Choucair, the White House vaccination coordinator, shared a similar sentiment as he urged Kentuckians “to focus on prevention of the Covid-19 virus by getting vaccinated instead of waiting to be treated after getting sick.”

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