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In Mississippi, there are too many patients and not enough staff

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Some states are emerging from the omicron surge, but hospitals in Mississippi are in crisis. Demand for beds are up, but there are shortages of staff. Shalina Chatlani with the Gulf States Newsroom reports from Brookhaven, Miss.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: Brookhaven, population 12,500, is a sleepy little town split in half by railroad tracks and dotted with small businesses, arcades and mom-and-pop diners. One of its biggest employers is King's Daughters Medical Center, where CEO Alvin Hoover says the pandemic has been hard to weather.

ALVIN HOOVER: I've been looking at a worst-case scenario getting worse and worse for two years now.

CHATLANI: King's Daughters is a small operation of about 99 beds. But since the omicron surge, two-thirds of those beds have been unavailable. That's because there's not enough staff.

HOOVER: Patients come to the emergency room. They wait and wait because we don't have a room. We don't have a nurse.

CHATLANI: Nurses are out sick, have quit or retired or burned out. More commonly, they're leaving to become travel nurses who can hop from hospital to hospital on lucrative contracts. Hoover's hospital usually pays full-time nurses around $25 an hour, but he has to pay a travel nurse five times that rate. And to keep the nurses he has left, he's offered higher pay for a month and bonuses.

HOOVER: Over the course of the pandemic, you could say millions of dollars

CHATLANI: Even before the pandemic, it wasn't easy keeping King's Daughters doors open. Because Mississippi has declined to expand Medicaid, hospitals here get less federal funding. But if you live in Brookhaven, King's Daughters is critical. Downtown, longtime resident Sandy Freeman gets lunch at Janie's Pastries. She's been to King's Daughters many times.

SANDY FREEMAN: I got asthma. Sometimes, when I get sick, if I don't stop it when it starts, it'll get bad. If there ain't no hospital, then what're you supposed to do?

CHATLANI: Most hospitals outside of Brookhaven are at least 30 minutes away, so she relies on the local medical center.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

FREEMAN: It means a lot when you need it (laughter).

CHATLANI: Derek McKenzie has been a nurse here for nine years and understands why quitting to become a travel nurse is tempting.

DEREK MCKENZIE: I mean, I'm not saying that they don't pay me good. I'm just saying I'm not going to make what a travel nurse makes even up in Jackson right now.

CHATLANI: Jackson is the capital. McKenzie doesn't blame anyone for chasing a buck. But he says there are downsides to travel nursing.

MCKENZIE: It's never a guaranteed full-time thing. I mean, it's - I've been here since I got out of nursing school. I mean, this has been my home base. Everybody I know has been here.

CHATLANI: He says King's Daughters is like family to him. It's demanding and hectic, so, of course, he would like to be paid more, like his travel nurse cousin in Texas, who earned over $200,000 last year. But he understands this small hospital's finances are tight. And his family lives here, too.

MCKENZIE: I don't have any desire to up and try relearning new facilities, new doctors and all of that.

CHATLANI: The hospital would need to hire about 30 people to get the nursing department running smoothly again. But hospital CEO Alvin Hoover says no one is applying. He says he'd welcome back nurses who quit to take more lucrative travel gigs.

HOOVER: If they come in and say, I quit today, then I don't necessarily want that nurse back. But you know what? If they come back and say, we'd like to work here again, we'd hire them.

CHATLANI: Hoover says he's not worried about the hospital completely shutting down short term. It's been surviving on supplemental government funding during the pandemic. But it's unclear how much longer that will last and what the health care landscape will look like after the current surge.

For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in Brookhaven, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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