A nationwide shortage of nursing home staff is creating a backlog of care for this country's aging population at a time when the need has never been more critical.
Paul Liistro's family has owned Manchester Manor nursing home in Connecticut since it first opened in 1966. But this is the first time he can ever remember being so short-staffed.
"Every day is a new battle. There is no such thing as we’ve turned a corner and everything will be fine," Liistro said.
At full staff, this nursing home has 175 nurses working, but their employee payroll for the last few months has been closer to 145. Because of state regulations, they are one nurse shy of opening a new wing of the nursing home which has 16 beds.
Liistro says his facility is regularly turning away patients who are being referred by nearby hospitals for rehabilitation services.
"As long as the beds aren’t filled, it’s always a sign of we’re short-staffed," he added.
So, what’s happening?
Part of the problem is the pay. Nursing homes have been historically underfunded by Medicare and Medicaid for decades. And as the pandemic drags on though, many nurses and staff are experiencing burnout.
"It's pandemic fatigue. People were saying there is no amount of money that will keep me here and that’s when we started losing people," Liistro said.
Nursing home staffing shortages create major implications for the rest of the health care system. If a patient can’t be sent from a hospital to a bed in a nursing home to recover from surgery, that person has to stay in a hospital longer. At a time when emergency room capacity is already being taxed.
David Gifford with the American Health Care Association is seeing an unprecedented exodus at nursing homes.
"Staff are exhausted they’re burnt out, as in many professions many are thinking of leaving," Gifford said.
Since the start of the pandemic, an estimated 400,000 people have left the profession. According to AHCA, half of all nursing homes in the U.S. are so short-staffed, they aren’t accepting new patients.
In an effort to entice more people to enter the nursing home industry, AHCA is lobbying congress to offer loan forgiveness and tax incentives to workers.
"The question is how are we going to get them to come to us and that’s where we’ve been focusing our efforts," Gifford said.
Back at Manchester Manor, Paul Liistro is trying to be competitive by raising starting salaries here from $17 an hour to $20 an hour. Even that though hasn't been enough.
"What we didn’t expect is everyone else would raise their salaries. We’re competing with Walmart and Amazon, even fast food places," Liistro said about the struggle to find workers.
And so, this industry that is so critical to this country’s aging population continues to navigate its way through the pandemic.