Preparing for “The Surge” — Staffing Strategies During a Pandemic

Healthcare Staffing Strategies During a Pandemic

As the saying goes, unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. Despite an organization’s best effort to incorporate pandemic planning in the workplace, staffing strategies might pose a bigger challenge than originally anticipated.

COVID-19 has created unforeseen challenges for the healthcare industry, with many evolving day by day. With so many unknown factors in today’s new normal, organizations are forced to look to different and often unconventional approaches to innovation and resiliency.

Despite the new daily challenges, healthcare organizations are driven by their number one priority — the safety of patients and employees. Caring for patients during a pandemic has created new staffing challenges, leaving organizations to perhaps throw out the traditional playbook.

By incorporating different approaches to staffing, organizations will become more flexible and better equipped to manage uncharted territory. The information here will help better equip healthcare organizations to understand staffing strategies as part of a pandemic plan and the associated benefits. Staff who are more flexible to work in areas they are less familiar in has grown in popularity among healthcare organizations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Today’s unpredictable environment has pushed healthcare leaders to reimagine staffing models and workforce planning in a hospital while adapting to everchanging protocols. As organizations experience surges over time, the growing need to ensure nursing staff are flexed up continues to push organizations out of comfort zones.

Healthcare leaders are rethinking their staffing model and reevaluating their workforce planning strategies to meet the demands during this pandemic for safe and effective care. The ability for organizations to cross-train and ramp up staffing levels quickly are just a few strategies organization are integrating to continue to provide safe and effective care. Additional strategies include the ability to expand staffing in the event of a public health emergency that includes mutual aid agreements, temporary/contract professionals, volunteers with experience, assistance from the American Red Cross and other relief agencies, recruiting retired professionals, and national disaster resource teams from outside the locality.

Staffing During a Pandemic

In the midst of a pandemic, an organization’s capabilities to be more flexible can assist in balancing the mental and physical safety of employees. Options for organizations might include the following examples:

  • Cross-train team members and upskill nurses.
    • PACU nurses to support the needs of the ICU.
    • Med/Surg/Ambulatory Care nurses to cross-train in other areas where needed.
    • Other considerations: APNs/NPs/CRNAs to support ICU.
  • Offer shorter shifts on less critical units.
  • Hire per diem nurses as needed.
  • Use part-time/float pool resource staff.
  • Provide incentives for nurses to take shifts on high-volume units.
  • Prioritize telehealth for providers who are quarantining or recovering so they virtually treat patients.
  • Limit non-essential personnel (e.g., newborn baby photographer, retail/giftshop employees, visitor desk attendants, volunteers, etc.).

How to Create a Pandemic Staffing Plan

Pandemic planning templates can help organizations function as effectively and safely as possible while limiting the risk of exposure to persons within the entire community. In addition to a pandemic planning template and tools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers resources such as COVID-19Surge Tool (for hospital administrators and public health officials to estimate the surge in demand for hospital-based services during the COVID-19 pandemic) and a PPE Burn Rate Calculator (to help healthcare facilities plan and optimize the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for response to COVID-19). The CDC also provides specific guidance for healthcare facilities experiencing staffing shortages due to COVID-19 that are looking to supplement a pandemic preparedness plan template.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released guidance for healthcare organizations’ staffing strategies during COVID-19, including:

  1. Limiting the number of staff exposed to COVID-19 patients by cohorting.
  2. Tracking staff who are sick and testing for COVID-19.
  3. Keeping a log of staff who have confirmed COVID-19.
  4. Shifting clinical staff to highest-need areas.
  5. Allocating limited healthcare resources in a rational, ethical, and organized way.

Providing Support To Your Staff During COVID-19

Relias’ mission, to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of society and those who care for them, takes on new meaning amidst this global pandemic. As an organization specializing in online education solutions for healthcare providers, we’re providing free resources and courses to help organizations combat and protect against COVID-19.

As COVID-19 cases surge in certain areas, hospital admissions increase significantly and rapidly. Appropriately staffing during a pandemic will help organizations prioritize the safety of patients and healthcare workers alike, requiring continuous monitoring and shifting as needed. While limiting the number of healthcare workers on the floor is helpful in preventing illness in the workplace, organizations must be careful not to overburden employees. Early COVID-19 research links mental health issues including insomnia, depression, and anxiety with nurses and those on the healthcare frontlines.


Vice President, Quality, Relias

Felicia Sadler has been a registered nurse for over 30 years and is a certified professional in Healthcare Quality, a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt in Healthcare, and has served as an examiner for the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence. She holds a Master of Jurisprudence in health law from Loyola Chicago School of Law and a Bachelor of Science in nursing from South University. She has served as chairperson for ASHRM's Education Strategy Committee and ASHRM’s Education Development Task Force and assists healthcare organizations with strategic solutions to impact clinical outcomes and optimize organizational performance.

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