Rhode Island Officials Fear Shortage Of Medical Staff Surging COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island mean the state might not have enough medical workers to treat all the people hospitalized.

Rhode Island Officials Fear Shortage Of Medical Staff

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The coronavirus surge has hit especially hard in the nation's smallest state. Rhode Island has the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in New England. Bars are closed. Gyms are closed. And two field hospitals opened this week to care for an overflow of COVID patients. But extra hospital beds only solve one part of the equation. Health reporter Lynn Arditi has more.

LYNN ARDITI, BYLINE: On Tuesday night, Dr. Heather Rybasack-Smith finished up her first shift at the Rhode Island Convention Center in downtown Providence, now a field hospital. We talked to the emergency medicine physician as she was driving home.

HEATHER RYBASACK-SMITH: You put on your gown and your gloves and your mask and your mask cover and your face shield. And then you sort of open these doors and you walk into this giant space that feels almost like a cathedral. And then on either side, there's just patient bed after patient bed after patient bed.

ARDITI: Hundreds of beds. Only about a dozen of those beds were occupied, but the facility had just opened.

RYBASACK-SMITH: It's almost quiet when you walk through. Like, you can hear your footsteps on the cement floor as you go along the corridors.

ARDITI: This is the largest of Rhode Island's two field hospitals. The other is in a converted bank call center. They were built in the spring but weren't used until now. These field hospitals are designed to care for COVID patients who are not critically ill in the same way they would be cared for at a regular hospital.

CATHY DUQUETTE: We have oxygen valves at every bed with regulators just like we would in the hospital.

ARDITI: That is Cathy Duquette. She's the chief nursing executive at Lifespan, which is operating the field hospital at the convention center. But field hospitals require more than beds and equipment. They need staff. Doctor Selim Suner is director of disaster medicine and emergency preparedness at Rhode Island Hospital. He runs the 600-bed field hospital in Providence.

SELIM SUNER: My biggest worry is, you know, will the number of infections continue to rise at this high rate?

ARDITI: Suner says they have enough staff for about 50 patients.

SUNER: But once we get beyond a hundred, staffing would be a significant issue.

ARDITI: Significant because of the national shortage of nursing staff. Suner says they've been able to fly in additional nurses from other states. But as the virus surges around the country, those nursing staff are becoming harder to find. Rybasack-Smith, the emergency medicine doctor, says she's worried.

RYBASACK-SMITH: If you could just picture all those empty beds you see on TV full of sick patients, that's overwhelming. We really have to do what we can to make that not happen and not ever reach that place.

ARDITI: If hospitals in Rhode Island can't find enough staff, they'll shift to what are called crisis standards of care, and each nurse will be assigned to care for more patients. Medical care will be triaged. Health care providers say their best hope for preventing that is for Rhode Islanders to obey the state's public health orders and help curb the virus' spread.

For NPR News, I'm Lynn Arditi in Providence.

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