People wait at a COVID-19 mobile testing site run by the Department of Public Health in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) Virus Outbreak Pennsylvania
People wait at a COVID-19 mobile testing site run by the Department of Public Health in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Wolf administration requested Federal Emergency Management Agency “strike teams” for hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and ambulance companies in the hardest-hit areas of the state.

Pennsylvania asked the federal government on Wednesday to send health care workers to hospitals and nursing homes that are increasingly under stress from persistent staffing shortages and the latest COVID-19 surge.

The Wolf administration requested Federal Emergency Management Agency “strike teams” for hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and ambulance companies in the hardest-hit areas of the state. Pennsylvania also asked FEMA for 1 million rapid at-home coronavirus tests and for an increase in the state’s allocation of monoclonal antibody treatments, to be targeted to “rural areas, regions with higher social vulnerability, and lower vaccinations rates.”

Hospitals and nursing homes statewide have been sounding the alarm in recent weeks as largely unvaccinated COVID-19 patients fill hospital beds, sending some acute-care facilities over capacity. Hospitals are reporting very long emergency-room wait times, while staffing shortages in nursing homes are forcing some to stop accepting new residents.

“Our health care system is strained from COVID-19 cases and further exacerbated by persistent staffing shortages across the sector,” Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said in a written statement Wednesday.

“I am hopeful that these critically important supports will be addressed to alleviate the strain on our health care system and ultimately be able to provide Pennsylvanians the care they need during this time,” he said.

Pennsylvania is averaging more than 8,500 new, confirmed infections per day, up nearly 50% in two weeks. The number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospital care has increased by two-thirds since last month, averaging more than 4,300 per day. Deaths have also increased nearly 50% in two weeks to 89 daily.

Steve Tack, chief executive officer of Quality Life Services, a family-run chain of long-term care facilities in western Pennsylvania, said the pandemic accelerated a staffing shortage that is forcing his nursing homes to turn away hundreds of hospital patients ready to be discharged to long-term care. 

The nursing homes declined 281 referrals last month, and 89 through the first 12 days of December.

Tack said the staffing shortages run both ways. Because of hospital overcrowding, acutely ill nursing home residents “are sitting in the emergency room for several days,” he said.

“Staffing was certainly getting very very pressured before the pandemic. It’s only increased exponentially since the pandemic,” Tack said. “A state like Pennsylvania that is right now getting hit with a wave of COVID hospitalizations, it just puts a real magnifying glass on it.”

As the state asked for federal support, unionized nurses gathered outside the Pittsburgh headquarters of UPMC on Wednesday to demand the health care giant boost staffing at its hospital in Altoona, asserting that patients routinely wait 24 hours for care — and have languished as long as more than 50 hours — because of the nursing shortage. The nurses, represented by SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, said UPMC had failed to invest in workforce retention.

“When nurses leave our hospital, they take years of experience and dedication with them, and it is ultimately our patients who suffer,” said Sandy Wagner, an ICU nurse at UPMC Altoona.

UPMC said it’s not had a report of a 50-hour wait time, “ever.” It also denied 24-hour waits are happening at any of its emergency rooms. 

But the health system acknowledged that “we are experiencing longer delays and we often use all of our space to provide care,” adding its hospitals are filling up because of the COVID-19 surge, higher demand for other types of care, and the fact that other hospitals have been diverting patients to UPMC.

“In the UPMC system, unvaccinated patients are 7 times more likely to require hospitalization than vaccinated patients presenting to our emergency departments, leading to longer wait times for less critical needs and near-full hospitals,” UPMC’s statement said.

On the other side of the state, meanwhile, Philadelphia health officials on Wednesday urged residents to avoid in-person holiday gatherings, citing a sharp increase in cases. 

People who want to stick with their holiday plans should consider asking guests to get a booster shot and take a rapid test before coming, officials said. Their plea came two days after the city announced a vaccine requirement for restaurants and sports venues.

“We’re now entering what could be the most dangerous time since last winter,” said Philadelphia Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole.