As COVID-19 surges in El Paso — with a record high 2,294 new cases reported by the city on Friday — the impact on hospital staffing levels is unclear.

Providing few details about the number of staff out sick with COVID or current nurse-patient ratios, spokespeople for the city’s largest private hospitals, The Hospitals of Providence and Las Palmas del Sol Healthcare, have provided statements stressing that the safety of employees and patients is ensured.

Elsewhere in the city, many large institutions and government services report upwards of 10% of employees out sick with the virus: the El Paso school districts, Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department included. But the only local hospital to provide an estimate of staffing impacts from the COVID surge was the publicly funded University Medical Center, which reported 3% of staff out with COVID as of Thursday.

Meanwhile, a group of nurses from Providence and Las Palmas protested unsafe working conditions and inadequate staffing levels outside Providence Hospital on a chilly Thursday morning, bearing signs that read “Staff up! For Safe Care.”

Idali Cooper, an ICU nurse from Providence Memorial Hospital, said the problems that she and her colleagues face now are part of a long-term trend of inadequate staffing levels, further compounded by nurses and other hospital staff out sick with COVID-19.

“Compared to 18 months ago, we’ve had a (30%) decrease in nurses here in our hospital,” Cooper said. “We used to have 429 and now we’re less than 300 nurses at this time.”

Juan Anchondo (left), a nurse at Las Palmas Medical Center and Megan Madson, a nurse at Providence Memorial Hospital, protested hospital staffing levels Jan. 13. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

Providence spokesperson Monique Poessiger did not respond to a request for comment on this figure.

The companies that own the Hospitals of Providence and Las Palmas del Sol Healthcare, Tenet and HCA Healthcare, received massive federal bailouts in the early months of the pandemic while furloughing hundreds of workers in El Paso.

“As nurses, we want to take care of our patients in a safe manner. When there’s not enough staff and we’re taking care of more patients than we should, we increase the risk of causing medical errors which can be preventable,” Cooper said.

Megan Madson, an ER nurse at the Hospitals of Providence East Campus, described the challenges of inadequate medical equipment as“terrifying.”

“In the (Hospitals of Providence East Campus) emergency room we’re short monitor cables and equipment,” Madson said. She described having to come up with “Macgyver” solutions and workarounds for patients on a daily basis because of faulty equipment.

Nationally, hospitals have struggled as increasing numbers of staff call in sick with the highly transmissible omicron variant. Four states have had to call in the National Guard to help with patient care because of staffing shortages in recent weeks. 

Although current hospitalization numbers are nowhere near the levels seen in November 2020, when El Paso had to park mobile morgues outside of hospitals to accommodate COVID-19 deaths, new case numbers are still climbing, with deaths often occurring two to eight weeks after symptoms begin. The omicron variant is less likely to lead to severe illness than previous strains of coronavirus but still carries the potential to overwhelm hospitals if enough people get sick with it.

While nurses argued Thursday that their protest was motivated by local hospital conditions, a spokesperson from Las Palmas del Sol Healthcare who declined to be named, said their efforts were more about the strategy of National Nurses United, the nurses’ union that organized a Jan. 13 day of action.

“No one takes the health and safety of our caregivers more seriously than we do,” the spokesperson said. “While this labor union continues to attack hospitals across the country, our focus continues to be on protecting our colleagues and caring for our community.”

Providence spokesperson Poessiger emphasized that the hospital is “aggressively working to expand staffing resources” and is currently hiring for both nurses and other ancillary specialties.

But for now, Providence ER nurse Madson said she’s begun to pray more often as a way to cope with the stress.

“I pray every day now before I go into work, just that we’ll not have any major catastrophes,” she said. “That we’ll be able to get through the night without having to ‘Macgyver’ situations for these poor patients.”

Feature photo: Nurses from Providence Memorial Hospital and Las Palmas Medical Center gathered Jan. 13, in front of Providence Memorial Hospital to protest what they described as unsafe staffing levels, as part of a national day of action organized by the nurses’ union National Nurses United. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.