Flu Has Affected Hospital Volume, Supplies, Staffing

The harsh flu season has resulted in a spike in boarding at Massachusetts acute care hospital emergency departments (EDs), ongoing medical staff absences, increased patient transfers among hospitals, and a marked shortage in basic supplies such as flu testing kits, according to the results of a DPH survey.

Ninety three percent of the 43 hospitals responding said they are experiencing a surge or higher-than-normal volume in their EDs.

In describing how their operations changed to deal with the surge, individual hospitals commented that they were experiencing a “high-level increase in boarders” or that their “dedicated corridor stretchers” were full. One hospital reported a 30-60% increase in visits to its ED and urgent care clinics.

About half of the responding hospitals reported that they were either accepting patients from other hospitals or transferring them, and of those respondents, 79% reported challenges in transferring patients. Those challenges range from “lack of ICU beds system wide and regionally” to the ambulance companies needed for the transfers reporting their own staff shortages due to the flu.

Of particular concern, 65% of the hospitals said they were experiencing a higher-than-normal staff absentee rate.  Hospitals report staff filling in for sick colleagues and travel nurses being hired to fill the gaps. Overtime is up, according to those responding.  Twenty-two percent said staffing shortages will affect the hospital’s ability to provide normal services.

Seventy percent of the hospitals said they were experiencing supply/vendor chain issues due to the flu, with the biggest shortages being in flu test kits, IV fluids, and even surgical type masks.

In a note to hospitals accompanying the flu survey results, Alfred DeMaria, Jr., M.D., the medical director and state epidemiologist of DPH’s Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, wrote, “This surge in demand related to influenza has resulted in some challenges within hospitals' supply chains, particularly for flu test kits, IV fluids and masks. But the responses have reinforced the belief that we are not seeing a widespread crisis, and most hospitals have been able to modify and adapt their current practices to accommodate the surge ... We know that this flu season has been challenging, to say the least, but please know that we appreciate all of the efforts of your dedicated staff to continue to provide the highest quality of care to your patients.”