Southern Illinois Healthcare began vaccinating its employees last week. As of Monday, more than 1,200 SIH employees received the COVID-19 vaccination.

Local hospital leaders expect the COVID-19 vaccine to help address staffing challenges during the pandemic.

Southern Illinois Healthcare, which operates Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, Herrin Hospital, St. Joseph Memorial Hospital, and clinics throughout southern Illinois, has vaccinated more than 1200 of its employees since the first batch of Pfizer vaccines arrived last week.

“It’s been stressful here. But last week, when we were able to sign up for the vaccine and heard the shipment had arrived, it really was a joyous moment here. We keep hearing it called ‘a shot of hope,’ ” said Tera Lannom, director of nursing excellence at SIH. “This ‘shot of hope’ feels like the beginning of the end of the pandemic. It really is such a huge scientific discovery and a historic moment for us.”

The SIH employees will each get a second dose of the vaccine in about three weeks.

“And then, I think, you reach peak immunity about a week after that,” Lannom explained. “But yes, this could make a huge difference on our nursing staffing levels eventually.”

Lannom said staffing has been a challenge during the pandemic because of the number of nurses who have been out due to COVID-19 or COVID-like illnesses.

“So that has reduced the amount of staff that we’ve had available to care for our patients,” Lannom said. “And then also, COVID patients in general take up more staffing than what our regular patients would. So we’re seeing some nursing shortages that way as well.”

Lannom said the majority of sick SIH employees were infected through community spread rather than work-related spread. Although the number of nurses out at one time fluctuates day to day, the highest number was about 60.

“And that’s not just nurses at the bedside. This could be nurses in other departments as well,” said Lannom. “But 60 is about the highest that we’ve seen.”

To help compensate, Lannom said remaining SIH employees have stepped up.

“Nurses that have maybe left the bedside a number of years ago, some have cross-trained to come back and help out at the bedside. And then, we’ve also seen nurses, like nurse practitioners who maybe work Monday through Friday, have volunteered to come in on their days off or after hours to come help out on the units as well,” she said. “We have people that want to help. In the event that we haven’t had enough staff to go around, we have had to close some beds here in the hospital because we did not want to increase our ratios, our nurse-to-patient ratio or anything like that. So in the event that we just don’t have the staff, we have had to close some beds.”

Although Lannom expects the vaccine to eventually help with staffing levels once peak immunity is reached, SIH will continue to take precautions.

“We still plan to continue with social distancing and mask-wearing for right now until we know more,” Lannom said. “It will still take a while to get through vaccinating absolutely everyone.”

Staffing has also been a challenge at Mercy-Health Lourdes Hospital in Paducah.

“When you have a workforce where you even just have a few individuals in each department who may be sick, particularly if that’s a department that runs 24/7 and is staffed well in advance, it’s just very difficult when several people are sick at the same time to find replacements to keep people who have already been on shift from having to work such that they’re fatigued,” said Dr. Jenny Franke, chief clinical officer at Lourdes. “We want to make certain that the care of our patients when they come into our hospital is the best care possible.”

Franke said the hospital developed several strategies to use when staffing became an issue.

“Early on in the pandemic, utilizing traveling nurses or traveling staff was a fairly common occurrence,” she said. “Unfortunately now, we’re not seeing pockets or hot spots of COVID in certain cities in the country. We’re seeing COVID throughout the country, so there’s really not a pool of individuals that are readily available as travelers to come and fill those spots. We do have a couple of traveling nurses that are assisting us, which has been very, very helpful.

“The other thing that we’re doing is we’re looking at the workforce within our organization that’s not in the hospital,” Franke continued. “That means that we have many different clinics with nurses, both RNs and LPNs who have not recently worked inside a hospital setting, but could redevelop those skills. We have a list of who has what skills, how we might be able to educate them and fit them into other roles to help with the treatment team.”

Like SIH, Lourdes also began vaccinating its employees last week. Franke believes it will help with staffing challenges.

“I definitely think that as associates are vaccinated and we reach that 95% immunity, that we will have fewer issues with staffing,” Franke said. “I think that will allow our staff to do their jobs and have far less of a risk of becoming sick with COVID, and it will improve our ability to be able to take care of patients.”

Franke said Lourdes vaccinated 240 people last week, including 200 Lourdes employees and 40 contracted or affiliate providers from Baptist Health, Lourdes or the community. The hospital plans to vaccinate another 200 to 250 people this week, including 50 EMS staff.

“So far, we have vaccinated 240 individuals with the Pfizer vaccine, and have not seen any side effects in the 15 minutes that folks are being monitored afterwards,” Franke said. “I’ve heard from some of my colleagues about a little bit of a sore arm. But really,very minimal side effects. We know how effective this vaccine is. We have not seen any serious side effects thus far, and I would just really encourage the public to be well-educated on the vaccine options, and be open-minded to receiving the vaccine when it’s available to them.”

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