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S.C. nursing facilities face higher COVID-19 fatalities, staffing shortages

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South Carolina is one of the deadliest states in the country for nursing home residents with COVID-19 according to a recent AARP report. The state also faces a higher than average shortage of nurses and aides.

The report, featuring self-reported data from nursing homes across the country collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, demonstrates that from Aug. 24 to Sept. 20, for every 100 residents in South Carolina nursing homes, 1.2 died of COVID-19 — the highest percentage in the country. The national rate was 0.48 for every 100 residents.

Staff members in the Palmetto State also faced higher risks for catching the virus with 4.1 staff members out of 100 reporting a case during the study window. The U.S. rate is 2.5.

More than a third all nursing facilities across the state — or 35.2% — have also struggled to find the staff needed to care for patients during the study’s time window. The national average for residences facing staffing shortages is 28.8% with the highest states ranking in at a 51.1% shortage, according to the report.

The staff shortage also continues in S.C. hospitals as well, said Ship Ames, press representative for the S.C. Hospital Association, despite a decline in the surge of COVID-19 patients across the Palmetto State.

“We’re certainly doing much better now with having a lot more resources and a lot more knowledge of how to respond to COVID-19,” Ames said, adding that access to treatments like Remdesivir have greatly changed the landscape of patient care. “We can see that hospitals have very much gotten it under control … but staffing is going to continue to be an issue as we are seeing spikes.”

Aid from National Guard medics and staff helped fill in the hospital labor gap earlier in the pandemic through screening and other tasks, especially in the Pee Dee Region from Myrtle Beach to Florence, he said.

Moving forward, the SCHA has also been advocating for another solution to the labor shortage in hospitals: a staffing contract with the state.

“How can we use the negotiating powers of the state to help us get more staff into South Carolina?” Ames said, describing the questions that prompted SCHA’s pursuit of a hospital staffing contract.

At this point, Ames isn’t sure if the contact would apply to nursing facilities or not, since plans for the contract are still in their early stages.

As for personal protective equipment, Ames said hospitals are reporting a much greater supply than in the past thanks to internal supply chains and the pivoting of local companies.

“We’ve seen the need for PPE go down considerably as other supply chains have been identified,” Ames said. “This really forced us to look inside our state.”

Still, at least in some nursing facilities, the need for PPE remains urgent.

According to the AARP study, compared to the national average, South Carolina fell short in terms of its personal protective equipment supply but not as much as other states. During the study period, 34.1% of nursing facilities across the state reported that they did not have enough PPE to last a week, compared to a quarter of the nation’s residential nursing facilities.

About 60% of nursing facilities in states with the most dire shortages reported having less than a week’s worth of PPE on hand.

“It continues to be something on our list, something we check in with every week,” Ames said.

Reach Molly Hulsey at 864-720-1223.

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