TUPELO • Leaders from North Mississippi Health Services say they have spent the bulk of federal coronavirus relief funds they received this year purchasing machines to monitor COVID-19 patients remotely, upgrading existing telecommunications technology and defraying costs for hiring more health care workers.
On Tuesday, the leaders of one of the largest rural hospitals in the nation described how they’ve used money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act while giving a tour of the hospital to state Sen. Chad McMahan, a Republican from Guntown who requested to see how the hospital spent the tax dollars.
Shane Spees, CEO of NMHS, said the health system received approximately $85 million in federal relief funds. One of the primary purchases the system made with the funds was monitors that allow nurses and other workers to remotely observe COVID-19 patients safely without repeatedly entering into their rooms.
“The more opportunity we have for them to take care of the patient in a virtual or remote way, the better,” Spees said. “But they’re still going in and out of the room. It’s just this limits the number of times they would have to go in and out of the room to say take care of the patient.”
The technology allows nurses to treat COVID-19 patients effectively while protecting them from exposure.
Hospital officials said they spent most of the federal dollars offsetting clinical and staff expenses to treat more patients. Although the funding was used for hiring more staff, Speed said most health facilities in the nation are essentially waging a “bidding war” to hire more workers.
“We do know that our greatest need in the short term is financial support for staffing and staffing we may need to access even at a national level,” Spees said. “One of the problems that the pandemic has created is access to staffing is very expensive.”
David Wilson, president of NMHS, said that the hospital system was already somewhat short-staffed before COVID-19, but the nationwide demand for health care workers has only increased their shortage.
“We also have nurses that are out because they’ve been exposed in the community to further exacerbate that shortage,” Wilson said. “That’s kind of the perfect storm that we’re living in right now.”
According to Wilson, the hospital system has been able to hire 12 contract nurses, who will work for the company for roughly three months, with federal relief funds.
Earlier this month, state education and health care leaders told the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee the nursing shortage has become acute because of financial strains on hospitals.
Different ideas, such as granting temporary licenses to nursing students to work in hospitals, have been proposed to lawmakers, but no official policy changes have come forward to address the issue.
McMahan, a member of the public health committee, said he is committed to studying the issue further but believes community colleges and universities should lower their costs to allow more people to attend nursing school.
Although medical leaders were thankful for the federal and state assistance they have received, and praised their health care workers for continuing to provide services to the community, the threat of the virus still hung heavy on the tour.
Hospital officials showed McMahan the Patient Logistics Center, which the hospital uses to track in real time the number of beds it has available for potential patients. The hospital system created the center before the COVID-19 outbreak, but expanded its use after the pandemic began.
Different color-coded blocks at the center, each representing occupancy levels throughout the hospital, flashed across various screens for the health care analysts to determine where to place incoming patients. But the message on the tour was clear: there is almost no hospital availability for COVID-19 patients at the hospital.
“This is bad as it’s been since it started,” Wilson said.