Health systems are on edge after two quarters of shaky financial performance, with skyrocketing labor and supply costs compressing margins. But in addition to cost challenges, many are also reporting a softening of demand, with profitable surgeries and other procedures and diagnostics being hit hard. Some report seeing a drop in elective services (as one COO told us, “We may have finally worked our way through the backlog of delayed procedures from 2020 and 2021”), but in many cases, hospitals are missing the staff necessary to open up much-needed surgical capacity.
One system reported having to shut down operating rooms due to a lack of surgical techs. Even more pressing is a shortage in anesthesia capacity, with systems across the country having trouble staffing anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists. Some practitioners have been rolled up into large, investor-owned groups, which then have taken providers out-of-network for key insurers.
But regardless of ownership structure, a shortage of providers has led to “shoestring staffing” with little ability to cover absences or departures, leading to last-minute cancellations of procedures. Pediatric hospitals have been particularly hard-hit. Most rely on subspecialty-trained anesthesiologists, and as one physician leader pointed out, children’s hospitals use anesthesia not just for surgeries, but also for diagnostics, radiation therapy and other treatments where sedation isn’t required for adults.
All in, the shortage of anesthesiologists is leading to critical treatment delays and exacerbating revenue concerns. Moreover, systems are facing frustrated consumers, who care little about the complexities of the healthcare workforce shortage and supply chain challenges that led to an abrupt cancellation of their care.
Health care workers nationwide are organizing and pushing for workplace changes like better pay or more favorable staffing ratios after waves of pandemic-fueled burnout and frustration.
Why it matters: COVID-19 and its aftereffects triggered an exodus of health care workers. Those who stayed are demanding more from health systems that claim to be reaching their own breaking points.
- “The pandemic exacerbated a crisis that was already there,” Michelle Boyle, a Pittsburgh nurse told Axios. “It went from being a crisis to being a catastrophic freefall in staffing.”
Driving the news: About 1,400 resident physicians in public Los Angeles County hospitals have authorized a strike if their demands for pay parity with other local facilities aren’t met in contract negotiations this week.
- Nurses demonstrated across Pennsylvania in early May, protesting one state lawmaker’s inaction on legislation that would have set nurse-to-patient ratios.
- A fight is brewing in Minnesota as contracts covering 15,000 nurses in several hospital systems are expiring.
- Some 2,000 resident physicians and interns at Stanford University and the University of Vermont Medical Center joined an affiliate of the SEIU for medical workers that claims more than 20,000 members nationwide.
- In North Carolina, where union membership is low, staff at Mission Health in Asheville voted to unionize largely over staffing concerns.
Less than half of the of nearly 12,000 nurses polled by the American Nurses Association last year believe their employer cares about their concerns, and 52% of those surveyed said they intend to leave their jobs or are considering doing so.
The other side: Hospital operators generally oppose unionization efforts, as well as mandated staffing ratios.
- “The last thing we need is requirements set by somebody in Washington as to exactly how many nurses ought to be providing service at any given time,” said Chip Kahn, CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals. “That ought to be a local decision based on the need in the hospital at the time.”
- The American Organization for Nursing Leadership, an affiliate of the American Hospital Association, also opposes staffing ratios.
- The industry says decisions on staffing and workplace rules are best left to local executives who need to be flexible to meet shifting demand for care.
- “You’re basically taking away the flexibility of those on the scene to determine what it takes to provide the needed patient care,” Kahn said.
Go deeper: The pandemic drove up labor costs significantly for hospitals that were forced to pay travel nurses to fill workforce gaps during COVID surges.
- April marked the fourth month in a row this year that major hospitals and health care systems reported negative margins, a Kaufman Hall report found. And executives say things could worsen amid inflation and stubborn supply chain woes.
And yet, some big hospital chains like Tenet reported strong earnings in the first quarter.
Between the lines: California is the only state to have set staffing ratios for nurses, but hospital unions in other states have fought for similar requirements in their contracts.
- In California, every nurse on a general hospital floor has no more than five patients to care for at a time; nurses in ICUs should care for no more than two patients.
- Nurses want look-alike standards in states like Pennsylvania, where only some hospitals have staffing ratios, saying short-staffing threatens patients’ well-being.
What we’re watching: While many legislative proposals failed this year, unions representing health care workers say their message is getting across.
- Unions in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Washington state are redoubling efforts for staffing ratio legislation modeled on California’s.
- In New York, nurses passed a law that took effect in January mandating staffing committees at hospitals.
The bottom line: The labor tension is a sobering coda to a health crisis that’s stretched health systems and workers alike in unprecedented ways.
“What you’re seeing is nurses finally saying enough is enough and this system is broken and we need it to be fixed,” said Denelle Korin, a nurse alliance coordinator with Nurses of Pennsylvania.
Hospitals are experiencing significant increases in expenses for workforce, drugs and medical supplies
For over two years since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s hospitals and health systems have been on the front lines caring for patients, comforting families and protecting communities.
With over 80 million cases1, nearly 1 million deaths2, and over 4.6 million hospitalizations3, the pandemic has taken a significant toll on hospitals and health systems and placed enormous strain on the nation’s health care workforce. During this unprecedented public health crisis, hospitals and health systems have confronted many challenges, including historic volume and revenue losses, as well as skyrocketing expenses (See Figure #1).
Hospitals and health systems have been nimble in responding to surges in COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic by expanding treatment capacity, hiring staff to meet demand, acquiring and maintaining adequate supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect patients and staff and ensuring that critical services and programs remain available to the patients and communities they serve. However, these and other factors have led to billions of dollars in losses over the last two years for hospitals, and over 33% of hospitals are operating on negative margins.
The most recent surges triggered by the delta and omicron variants have added even more pressure to hospitals. During these surges, hospitals saw the number of COVID-19 infected patients rise while other patient volumes fell, and patient acuity increased. This drove up expenses and added significant financial pressure for hospitals. Moreover, hospitals did not receive any government assistance through the COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund (PRF) to help mitigate rising expenses and lost revenues during the delta and omicron surges. This is despite the fact that more than half of COVID-19 hospitalizations have occurred since July 1, 2021, during these two most recent COVID-19 surges.
At the same time, patient acuity has increased, as measured by how long patients need to stay in the hospital. The increase in acuity is a result of the complexity of COVID-19 care, as well as treatment for patients who may have put off care during the pandemic. The average length of a patient stay increased 9.9% by the end of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.4
As hospitals treat sicker patients requiring more intensive treatment, they also must ensure that sufficient staffing levels are available to care for these patients, and must acquire the necessary expensive drugs and medical supplies to provide high-quality care. As a result, overall hospital expenses have experienced considerable growth.
Data from Kaufman Hall, a consulting firm that tracks hospital financial metrics, shows that by the end of 2021, total hospital expenses were up 11% compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Even after accounting for changes in volume that occurred during the pandemic, hospital expenses per patient increased significantly from pre-pandemic levels across every category. (See Figure #1)
The pandemic has strained hospitals’ and health systems’ finances. Many hospitals operate on razorthin margins, so even slight increases in expenses can have dramatic negative effects on operating margins, which can jeopardize their ability to care for patients. These expense increases have been more challenging to withstand in light of rising inflation and growth in input prices. In fact, despite modest growth in revenues compared to pre-pandemic levels, median hospital operating margins were down 3.8% by the end of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to Kaufman Hall. Further exacerbating the problem for hospitals are Medicare sequestration cuts and payment increases that are well below increases in costs. For example, an analysis by PINC found that for fiscal year 2022, hospitals received a 2.4% increase in their Medicare inpatient payment rate, while hospital labor rates increased 6.5%.5
These levels of increased expenses and declines in operating margins are not sustainable. This report highlights key pressures currently facing hospitals and health systems, including:
- Workforce and contract labor expenses
- Drug expenses
- Medical supply and PPE expenses
- Rising economy-wide inflation
Each of these issues separately presents significant challenges to the hospital field. Taken together, they represent conditions that would be potentially catastrophic for most organizations, institutions and industries. However, the fact that the nation’s hospitals and health systems continue to serve on the front lines of the ongoing pandemic is a testament to their resiliency and steadfast commitment to their mission to serve patients and communities around the country.
Hospitals and health systems are the cornerstones of their communities. Their patients depend on them for access to care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hospitals are often the largest employers in their community, and large purchasers of local services and goods. Additional support is needed to help ensure hospitals have the adequate resources to care for their communities.
I. Workforce and Contract Labor Expenses
The hospital workforce is central to the care process and often the largest expense for hospitals. It is no surprise then that even before the pandemic, labor costs — which include costs associated with recruiting and retaining employed staff, benefits and incentives — accounted for more than 50% of hospitals’ total expenses. Therefore, even a slight increase in these costs can have significant impacts on a hospital’s total expenses and operating margins.
As the pandemic has persisted for over two years, the toll on the health care workforce has been immense. A recent survey of health care workers found that approximately half of respondents felt “burned out” and nearly a quarter of respondents said they anticipated leaving the health care field.6
This has been mirrored by a significant and sustained decline in hospital employment, down approximately 100,000 employees from pre-pandemic levels.7 At the height of the omicron surge, approximately 1,400 hospitals or 30% of all U.S. hospitals reporting data to the government, indicated that they anticipated a critical staffing shortage within the week.8 This high percentage of hospitals reporting a critical staffing shortage stayed relatively consistent throughout the delta and omicron surges.
The combination of employee burnout, fewer available staff, increased patient acuity and higher demand for care especially during the delta and omicron surges, has forced hospitals to turn to contract staffing firms to help address staffing shortages.
Though hospitals have long worked with contract staffing firms to bridge temporary gaps in staffing, the pandemic-driven-staffing-shortage has created an expanded reliance on contract staff, especially contract or travel registered nurses. Travel nurses are in particularly high demand because they serve a critical role in delivering care for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients and allow the hospital to meet the demand for care, especially during pandemic surges.
According to a survey by AMN Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest health care staffing agencies, 95% of health care facilities reported hiring nurse staff from contract labor firms during the pandemic.9 Staffing firms have increased their recruitment of contract or travel nurses, illustrating the significant growth in their demand. According to data from EMSI/Burning Glass, there has been a nearly 120% increase in job postings for contract or travel nurses from pre-pandemic levels in January 2019 to January 2022. (See Figure #2)
Similarly, the hours worked by contract or travel nurses as a percentage of total hours worked by nurses in hospitals has grown from 3.9% in January 2019 to 23.4% in January 2022, according to data from Syntellis Performance Solutions. (See Figure #3) In fact, a quarter of hospitals have experienced nearly a third of their total nurse hours accounted for by contract or travel nurses.
As the share of contract travel nurse hours has grown significantly compared to before the pandemic, so too have the costs of employing travel nurses compared to pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, hospitals spent a median of 4.7% of their total nurse labor expenses for contract travel nurses, which skyrocketed to a median of 38.6% in January 2022. (See Figure #3) A quarter of hospitals — those who have had to rely disproportionately on contract travel nurses — saw their costs for contract travel nurses account for over 50% of their total nurse labor expenses. In fact, while contract travel nurses accounted for 23.4% of total nurse hours in January 2022, they accounted for nearly 40% of the labor expenses for nurses. (See Figure #3) This difference has grown considerably compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, suggesting that the exorbitant prices charged by staffing companies are a primary driver of higher labor expenses for hospitals.
Data from Syntellis Performance Solutions show a 213% increase in hourly rates charged to hospitals by staffing companies for travel nurses in January 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels in January 2019. This is because staffing agencies have exploited the situation by increasing the hourly rates billed to hospitals for contract travel nurses more than the hourly rates they pay to travel nurses. This is effectively the “margin” retained by the staffing agencies. During pre-pandemic levels in 2019, the average “margin” retained by staffing agencies for travel nurses was about 15%. As of January 2022, the average “margin” has grown to an astounding 62%. (See Figure #4)
These high “margins” have fueled massive growth in the revenues and profits of health care staffing companies. Several staffing firms have reported significant growth in their revenues to as high as $1.1 billion in just the fourth quarter of 202110, tripling their revenues and net income compared to 2020 levels.11
The data indicate that the growth in labor expenses for hospitals and health systems was in large part due to the exorbitant rates charged by contract staffing firms. By the end of 2021, hospital labor expenses per patient were 36.9% higher than pre-pandemic levels, and increased to 57% at the height of the omicron surge in January 2022.12 A study looking at hospitals in New Jersey found that the increased labor expenses for contract staff amounted to $670 million in 2021 alone, which was more than triple what their hospitals spent in 2020.13 High reliance on contract or travel staff prevents hospitals and health systems from investing those costs into their existing employees, leading to low morale and high turnover, which further exacerbates the challenges hospitals and health systems have been facing.
II. Drug Expenses
Prescription drug spending in the U.S. has grown significantly since the pandemic. In 2021, drug spending (including spending in both retail and non-retail settings) increased 7.7%14, which was on top of an increase of 4.9%15 in 2020. While some of this growth can be attributed to increased utilization as patient acuity increased during the pandemic, a significant driver has been the continued increase in prices of existing drugs as well as the introduction of new products at very high prices. A study by GoodRx found that in January 2022 alone, drug companies increased the price of about 810 brand and generic drugs that they reviewed by an average of 5.1%.16 These price increases followed massive price hikes for certain drugs often used in the hospital such as Hydromorphone (107%), Mitomycin (99%), and Vasopressin (97%).17 For another example, the drug manufacturer of Humira, one of the most popular brand drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, increased the price of the drug by 21% between 2019 and 2021.18 A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that in Medicare Part B and D markets, half of all drugs in each market experienced price increases above the rate of inflation between 2019 and 2020 – in fact, a third of these drugs experienced price increases of greater than 7.5%.19 At the same time, according to a report by the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER), eight drugs with unsupported U.S. drug price increases between 2019 and 2020 alone accounted for an additional $1.67 billion in drug spending, further illustrating that drug companies’ decisions to raise the prices of their drugs are simply an unsustainable practice.20
As hospitals have worked to treat sicker patients during the pandemic, they have been forced to contend with sky-high prices for drugs, many of which are critical and lifesaving for their patients. For example, in 2020, 16 of the top 25 drugs by spending in Medicare Part B (hospital outpatient settings) had price increases greater than inflation — two of the top three drugs, Keytruda and Prolia — experienced price increases of 3.3% and 4.1%, respectively.21
As a result of these price increases, hospital drug expenses have skyrocketed. By the end of 2021, total drug expenses were 28.2% higher than pre-pandemic levels.22 When taken as a share of all non-labor expenses, drug expenses have grown from approximately 8.2% in January 2019, to 9.3% in January 2021, and to 10.6% in January 2022. (See Figure #5) Even when considering changes in volume during the pandemic, drug expenses per patient compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019 saw significant increases, with a 36.9% increase through 2021.
While continued drug price increases by drug companies have been a major driver of the growth in overall hospital drug expenses, there also are other important driving factors to consider:
- Drug Treatments for COVID-19 Patients: Remdesivir, one of the primary drugs used to treat COVID-19 patients in the hospital, has become the top spend drug for most hospitals since the pandemic. This drug alone accounted for over $1 billion in sales in the fourth quarter of 2021.23 Priced at an average of $3,12024, Remdesivir’s cost was initially covered by the federal government. However, hospitals must now purchase the drug directly.
- Limitation of 340B Contract Pharmacies: The 340B program allows eligible providers, including hospitals that treat many low-income patients or treat certain patient populations like children and cancer patients, to buy certain outpatient drugs at discounted prices and use those savings to provide more comprehensive services to the patients and communities they serve. Since July 2020, several of the largest drug manufacturers have denied 340B pricing to eligible hospitals through pharmacies with whom they contract, despite calls from the Department of Health and Human Services that such actions are illegal. Because of these actions, many 340B hospitals, especially rural hospitals who disproportionately rely on contract pharmacies to ensure access to drugs for their patients, have lost millions in 340B drug savings.25 In addition, these manufacturers have required claim-level data submissions as a condition of receiving 340B discounts, which has increased costs to deliver the data as well as staff time and expense to manage that process. The loss of 340B savings coupled with increased burden of providing detailed data to drug companies have contributed to increasing drug expenses.
- Health Plans’/Pharmacy Benefit Managers’ (PBMs’) “White Bagging” Policies: Health plans and PBMs have engaged in a tactic that steers hospital patients to third-party specialty pharmacies to acquire medication necessary for clinician-administered treatments, known as “white-bagging.” This practice disallows the hospital from procuring and managing the handling of a drug — typically drugs that are infused or injected requiring a clinician to administer in a hospital or clinic setting — used in patient care. These policies not only create serious patient safety concerns, but create delays and risks in patient care; add to administration, storage and handling costs; and create important liability issues for hospitals.
Taken together, these factors increase both drug expenses and overall hospital expenses.
III. Medical Supply and PPE Expenses
The U.S., like most countries in the world, relies on global supply chains for goods and services. This is especially true for medical supplies used at hospitals and other health care settings. Everything from the masks and gloves worn by staff to medical devices used in patient care come from a large network of global suppliers. Prior to the global pandemic, hospitals had established relationships with distributors and other vendors in the global health care supply chain to deliver goods as necessitated by demand. After the pandemic hit, many factories, distributors and other vendors shut down their operations, leaving hospitals, which were on the front lines facing surging demand, to fend for themselves. In fact, supply chain disruptions across industries, including health care, increased by 67% in 2020 alone.26
As a result, hospitals turned to local suppliers and non-traditional suppliers, often paying significantly higher rates than they did prior to the pandemic. Between fall 2020 and early 2022 costs for energy, resins, cotton and most metals surged in excess of 30%; these all are critical elements in the manufacturing of medical supplies and devices used every day in hospitals.27 As COVID-19 cases surged, demand for hospital PPE, such as N95 masks, gloves, eye protection and surgical gowns, increased dramatically causing hospitals to invest in acquiring and maintaining reserves of these supplies. Further, downstream effects from other global events such as the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis in China, as well as domestic issues, such as labor shortages and rising fuel and transportation costs, have all contributed to drive up even higher overall medical supply expenses for hospitals in the U.S.28 For instance, according to the Health Industry Distributors Association, transportation times for medical supplies are 440% longer than pre-pandemic times resulting in massive delays.29
Compared to 2019 levels, supply expenses for hospitals were up 15.9%30 through the end of 2021. When focusing on hospital departments involved most directly in care for COVID-19 patients − primarily hospital intensive care units (ICUs) and respiratory care departments − the increase in expenses is significantly higher. Medical supply expenses in ICUs and respiratory care departments increased 31.5% and 22.3%, respectively. Further, accounting for changes in volume during surge and non-surge periods of the pandemic, medical supply expenses per patient in ICUs and respiratory care departments were 31.8% and 25.9% higher, respectively. (See Figure #6) These numbers help illustrate the magnitude of the impact that increases in supply costs have had on hospital finances during the pandemic.
IV. Impact of Rising Inflation
Higher economy-wide costs have serious implications for hospitals and health systems, increasing the pressures of higher labor, supply, and acquisition costs; and potentially lower consumer demand. Inflation is defined as the general increase in prices and the decrease in purchasing power. It is measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). In April 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the CPI-U had the largest 12-month increase since September 2008. The CPI-U hit 40-year highs in February 2022.31 Overall, consumer prices rose by a historic 8.5% on an annualized basis in March 2022 alone.32
As inflation measured by consumer prices is at record highs, below are key considerations on the potential impact of higher general inflation on hospital prices:
- Labor Costs and Retention: Labor costs represent a significant portion of hospital costs (typically more than 50% of hospital expenses are related to labor costs). As the cost-of-living increases, employees generally demand higher wages/total compensation packages to offset those costs. This is especially true in the health care sector, where labor demands are already high, and labor supply is low.
- Supply Chain Costs: Medical supplies account for approximately 20% of hospital expenses, on average. As input/raw good costs increase due to general inflation, hospital supplies and medical device costs increase as well. Furthermore, shortages of raw materials, including those used to manufacture drugs, could stress supply chains (i.e., medical supply shortages), which may result in changes in care patterns and add further burden on staff to implement work arounds.
- Capital Investment Costs: Capital investments also may be strained, especially as hospitals have already invested heavily in expanding capacity to treat patients during the pandemic (e.g., constructing spaces for testing and isolation of COVID-19 patients). One of the areas that has seen the largest increase in prices/shortages is building materials (e.g., lumber). Additionally, a historically large increase in inflation has resulted in increases in interest rates, which may hamper borrowing options and add to overall costs.
- Consumer Demand: Higher inflation also may result in decreases in demand for health care services, specifically if inflation exceeds wage growth. Specifically, higher costs for necessities (food, transportation, etc.) could push down demand for health care services and, in turn, dampen hospital volumes and revenues in the long run.
Health care and hospital prices are not driving recent overall inflation increases. The BLS has cited increases in the indices for gasoline, shelter and food as the largest contributors to the seasonally adjusted all items increase. The CPI-U increased 0.8% in February on a seasonally adjusted basis, whereas the medical care index rose 0.2% in February. The index for prescription drugs rose 0.3%, but the hospital index for hospital services declined 0.1%.33
This is consistent with pre-pandemic trends. Despite persistent cost pressures, hospital prices have seen consistently modest growth in recent years. According to BLS data, hospital prices have grown an average 2.1% per year over the last decade, about half the average annual increase in health insurance premiums. (See Figure #7) More recently, hospital prices have grown much more slowly than the overall rate of inflation. In the 12 months ending in February 2022, hospital prices increased 2.1%. In fact, even when excluding the artificially low rates paid to hospitals by Medicare and Medicaid, average annual price growth has still been below 3% in recent years.34
While we hope that our nation is rounding the corner in the battle against COVID-19, it is clear that the pandemic is not over. During the week of April 11, there have been an average of over 33,000 cases per day35 and reports suggest that a new subvariant of the virus (Omicron BA.2) is now the dominant strain in the U.S.36 As a result, the challenges hospitals and health systems are currently facing are bound to last much longer.
As COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are decreasing in some parts of the U.S. and increasing in others, hospitals and health systems continue to care for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients. With additional surges potentially on the horizon, the massive growth in expenses is unsustainable. Most of the nation’s hospitals were operating on razor thin margins prior to the pandemic; and now, many of these hospitals are in an even more precarious financial situation. Regardless of potential new surges of COVID-19, hospitals and health systems continue to face workforce retention and recruitment challenges, supply chain disruptions and exorbitant expenses as outlined in this report.
Hospitals appreciate the support and resources that Congress has provided throughout the pandemic; however, additional support is needed now to keep hospitals strong so they can continue to provide care to patients and communities.
The U.S. economy added 467,000 jobs in January as the omicron variant spiked to record heights, with the labor market performing better than many expected two years after the pandemic began.
The unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 4 percent, from 3.9 percent the month before.
The monthly report, released by the Department of Labor, stems from a survey taken in mid-January, around the time the omicron variant was beginning to peak, with close to 1 million new confirmed cases each day. The rapid spread during that period upended many parts of the economy, closing schools, day cares, and a number of businesses, forcing parents to scramble.
But the labor market, according to the new data, performed very well during that stretch.
In addition to the robust January, the Department of Labor also revised upward the figure for December’s jobs report, to 510,000 from 199,000, and November, to 647,000 from 249,000. That means that there were some 700,000 more jobs added at the end of last year than previously estimated — showing a labor market with momentum heading into the new year.
The data sets show a labor market that continues to recover at a strong pace from the pandemic’s worst disruption in March and April of 2020.
New outbreaks and variants have sent shockwaves through the economy since then, but the labor market has continued to return, with companies working to add jobs and wages steadily rising.
The industries experiencing growth in January were lead by the leisure and hospitality sector, which added 151,000 jobs on the month, mostly in restaurants and bars. Professional and business services added 86,000 jobs. Retailers added 61,000 jobs in January, which is typically an off month. Transportation and warehousing added 54,000 jobs.
The labor market’s participation rate, a critical measurement that has never fully recovered from losses during the pandemic’s earliest days, also went up significantly, to 62.2 percent from 61.9 percent. That shows more people are reentering the labor force, looking for work.
Average hourly earnings increased by 23 cents on the month to $31.63, up 5.7 percent over the last year. However, those gains for many people have largely been wiped out by rising prices from inflation.
The data was collected during a tumultuous period. Nearly nine million workers were out sick around the time the survey was taken, and some of them could have been counted as unemployed based on the way the survey is conducted.
January is traditionally a weak month for employment when retail and other industries shed jobs after the holiday season. Economists say that seasonal adjustments made to the survey’s data to account for this have the potential to distort the survey in the other direction, given that the holiday shopping boom appeared to take place earlier this year than typical.
As such, predictions for job growth for the month had been all over the map. Analysts surveyed by Dow Jones predicted an average of about 150,000 jobs added for the month, in what would be the lowest amount added in a year. Some economists predicted job losses, of up to 400,000.
Last year was a strong year for growth in the labor market, with the country adding an average of more than 550,000 jobs a month — regaining some 6.5 million jobs lost in the pandemic’s earlier days, after the Department revised its numbers. The country has about 2.9 million fewer jobs than it had before the pandemic, according to the figures released Friday.
“Omicron is going to make it look like things dropped off a cliff in January, but overall they did not,” said Drew Matus, chief market strategist for MetLife Investment Management.
Some economists like Matus say that the prospects for such rapid regrowth are more complicated this year, with the fiscal measures that boosted the economy during the pandemic’s first two years, like generous government aid, and record low interest rates from federal bankers, having largely expired, and the country’s confidence in a virus-free future dented after the winter wave.
Since the rollout of vaccines last year, there have been hopes that a return to a more typical rhythm of life could encourage some of the roughly two million people who have left the labor force during the pandemic to seek work anew, but thus far, continued threats from variants — and uncertainty after more closures of schools, daycares, and office — have prevented this from materializing in a substantial way.
There are signs that the omicron exacted a toll on the economy during its peak.
Weekly unemployment claims swelled mid-month to its highest level since October, though the numbers have come down in the two weeks since. Other statistical markers like passenger traffic at airports, hotel revenues, and dining reservations also took a hit during the month.
Recent months continue to be marked by incredible churn in the labor market, as record numbers of workers are switching jobs. In December, some 4.3 million people quit or changed jobs — a number which was down from an all-time high in November but still at elevated. Employers continue to report near record numbers of job openings: the Bureau of Labor Statistics said they reported some 10.9 million openings last month.
We’ve been having “year ahead” discussions with our health system members over the past few weeks, although it’s been difficult for some to carve out time for planning in the midst of the Omicron surge.
One common theme is that, from a financial perspective, 2022 is expected to be a more difficult year. For many systems, despite the trying COVID situation, the past two years have been financial record-setters. In 2020, systems benefited from a massive infusion of COVID relief funding from the government, and in 2021, they continued to enjoy enhanced reimbursement due to COVID, plus had a resurgence of volume as patients sought care that was previously postponed.
2022 looks to be a more “normal” year—meaning a return to the financial pressures of pre-pandemic times. Those include mounting price compression from payers, an accelerating shift of care from inpatient to outpatient settings, and increasing competition for patients from disruptors and others. At the same time, patient acuity will continue to rise, with patients presenting sicker and with more comorbidities. The cost of caring for those patients will escalate, as the workforce shortage drives labor costs higher and supply chain woes persist.
We’d anticipate a year or more of belt-tightening among many health systems, as they adjust to the post-pandemic environment.
Some pundits claim that current reporting on COVID hospital admissions is overly pessimistic, failing to account for a distinction between patients admitted explicitly “for COVID”, and those admitted for other reasons who also, incidentally, have COVID. The latter now comprise up to half of some health systems’ COVID patients.
In an article in The Atlantic this week, reporter Ed Yong rejects this dichotomy, on the grounds that it ignores both the significant number of people for whom COVID exacerbates underlying chronic conditions, as well as the challenges any patient with COVID poses to hospitals. As he points out, those patients still require isolation and special safety measures, further worsening the burden on an already-strained staff.
The Gist: For hospitals, dealing with endemic COVID will mean establishing strategies to manage COVID-positive patients without postponing much needed non-emergency care, and without overly taxing a stretched workforce. Downplaying the burden of “incidental COVID” is not helpful, but sustaining operations while on perpetual crisis footing will prove untenable.
- The incredibly contagious new coronavirus variant is sidelining healthcare workers with breakthrough infections and quarantines, as patients flood into hospitals across the country. While hospitals are reporting that most infected patients are less sick, the sheer number of patients is pushing an already stressed system into crisis.
The Gist: Given mounting evidence that Omicron is both causing less severe disease and evading vaccines, health systems will need to balance employee COVID testing and quarantine protocols against the constraints caused by mounting numbers of otherwise asymptomatic care workers out sick. As COVID becomes endemic, health systems must find a way to normalize operations even as they manage employee infections. It won’t be sustainable to continually revert to canceling non-emergent procedures (many of which carry clinical consequences to patients if they are delayed) and shifting to crisis standards of care.
While Omicron’s rapid spread is causing COVID hospitalizations to surge once again, the impact on consumer confidence may be different this time around. Drawing on the most recent data from analytics firm Strata Decision Technology, the graphic above shows how hospital volumes have fluctuated throughout the pandemic. Hospital volumes mostly returned to pre-COVID levels early last summer, until the Delta surge caused patients to begin avoiding care across all settings once again.
It remains to be seen if the forty percent of consumers who said they were less likely to seek non-emergency care during the Delta surge feel similarly about the Omicron spike. So far, consumer sentiment seems to be holding steady at last summer’s levels, though we’re still a few weeks away from Omicron’s expected peak.
As the pandemic enters its third year, it’s also likely that consumers who have been delaying care will simply be unwilling or unable to hold off any longer. But even if Omicron doesn’t dissuade consumers from seeking non-COVID care, health systems will be hard pressed to accommodate both COVID and non-COVID care amid worrisome staffing shortages.
Hospitals across the U.S. are feeling the wrath of the omicron variant and getting thrown into disarray that is different from earlier COVID-19 surges.
This time, they are dealing with serious staff shortages because so many health care workers are getting sick with the fast-spreading variant. People are showing up at emergency rooms in large numbers in hopes of getting tested for COVID-19, putting more strain on the system. And a surprising share of patients — two-thirds in some places — are testing positive while in the hospital for other reasons.
At the same time, hospitals say the patients aren’t as sick as those who came in during the last surge. Intensive care units aren’t as full, and ventilators aren’t needed as much as they were before.
The pressures are nevertheless prompting hospitals to scale back non-emergency surgeries and close wards, while National Guard troops have been sent in in several states to help at medical centers and testing sites.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, frustration and exhaustion are running high among health care workers.
“This is getting very tiring, and I’m being very polite in saying that,” said Dr. Robert Glasgow of University of Utah Health, which has hundreds of workers out sick or in isolation.
About 85,000 Americans are in the hospital with COVID-19, just short of the delta-surge peak of about 94,000 in early September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The all-time high during the pandemic was about 125,000 in January of last year.
But the hospitalization numbers do not tell the whole story. Some cases in the official count involve COVID-19 infections that weren’t what put the patients in the hospital in the first place.
Dr. Fritz François, chief of hospital operations at NYU Langone Health in New York City, said about 65% of patients admitted to that system with COVID-19 recently were primarily hospitalized for something else and were incidentally found to have the virus.
At two large Seattle hospitals over the past two weeks, three-quarters of the 64 patients testing positive for the coronavirus were admitted with a primary diagnosis other than COVID-19.
Joanne Spetz, associate director of research at the Healthforce Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said the rising number of cases like that is both good and bad.
The lack of symptoms shows vaccines, boosters and natural immunity from prior infections are working, she said. The bad news is that the numbers mean the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, and some percentage of those people will wind up needing hospitalization.
This week, 36% of California hospitals reported critical staffing shortages. And 40% are expecting such shortages.
Some hospitals are reporting as much as one quarter of their staff out for virus-related reasons, said Kiyomi Burchill, the California Hospital Association’s vice president for policy and leader on pandemic matters.
In response, hospitals are turning to temporary staffing agencies or transferring patients out.
University of Utah Health plans to keep more than 50 beds open because it doesn’t have enough nurses. It is also rescheduling surgeries that aren’t urgent. In Florida, a hospital temporarily closed its maternity ward because of staff shortages.
In Alabama, where most of the population is unvaccinated, UAB Health in Birmingham put out an urgent request for people to go elsewhere for COVID-19 tests or minor symptoms and stay home for all but true emergencies. Treatment rooms were so crowded that some patients had to be evaluated in hallways and closets.
As of Monday, New York state had just over 10,000 people in the hospital with COVID-19, including 5,500 in New York City. That’s the most in either the city or state since the disastrous spring of 2020.
New York City hospital officials, though, reported that things haven’t become dire. Generally, the patients aren’t as sick as they were back then. Of the patients hospitalized in New York City, around 600 were in ICU beds.
“We’re not even halfway to what we were in April 2020,” said Dr. David Battinelli, the physician-in-chief for Northwell Health, New York state’s largest hospital system.
Similarly, in Washington state, the number of COVID-19-infected people on ventilators increased over the past two weeks, but the share of patients needing such equipment dropped.
In South Carolina, which is seeing unprecedented numbers of new cases and a sharp rise in hospitalizations, Gov. Henry McMaster took note of the seemingly less-serious variant and said: “There’s no need to panic. Be calm. Be happy.”
Amid the omicron-triggered surge in demand for COVID-19 testing across the U.S., New York City’s Fire Department is asking people not to call for ambulance just because they are having trouble finding a test.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine announced new or expanded testing sites in nine cities to steer test-seekers away from ERs. About 300 National Guard members are being sent to help out at those centers.
In Connecticut, many ER patients are in beds in hallways, and nurses are often working double shifts because of staffing shortages, said Sherri Dayton, a nurse at the Backus Plainfield Emergency Care Center. Many emergency rooms have hours-long waiting times, she said.
“We are drowning. We are exhausted,” Dayton said.
Doctors and nurses are complaining about burnout and a sense their neighbors are no longer treating the pandemic as a crisis, despite day after day of record COVID-19 cases.
“In the past, we didn’t have the vaccine, so it was us all hands together, all the support. But that support has kind of dwindled from the community, and people seem to be moving on without us,” said Rachel Chamberlin, a nurse at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Edward Merrens, chief clinical officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, said more than 85% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated.
Several patients in the hospital’s COVID-19 ICU unit were on ventilators, a breathing tube down their throats. In one room, staff members made preparations for what they feared would be the final family visit for a dying patient.
One of the unvaccinated was Fred Rutherford, a 55-year-old from Claremont, New Hampshire. His son carried him out of the house when he became sick and took him to the hospital, where he needed a breathing tube for a while and feared he might die.
If he returns home, he said, he promises to get vaccinated and tell others to do so too.
“I probably thought I was immortal, that I was tough,” Rutherford said, speaking from his hospital bed behind a window, his voice weak and shaky.
But he added: “I will do anything I can to be the voice of people that don’t understand you’ve got to get vaccinated. You’ve got to get it done to protect each other.”