Chief Nursing Officer Mary Beck speaks to the media

Chief Nursing Officer Mary Beck speaks to reporters over Zoom about the surge plan at MU Health Care on Tuesday in Columbia.

As the pandemic continues to put a strain on hospitals, MU Health Care is preparing its facilities and staff for even more COVID-19 patients if the need arises.

According to a “COVID-19 Planning Update” presentation obtained by KOMU 8 News via a public records request, the hospital’s surge plan envisions a capacity of 291 COVID-19 beds. According to MU Health Care’s COVID-19 dashboard, the hospital had 47 COVID-19-positive inpatients Monday and 41 on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services reported Tuesday that the virus had killed two more Boone County residents. One person was in the 65-69 age group, and the other was older than 80. That brings the total to 40 people in the county.

In an interview Tuesday morning, Mary Beck, chief nursing officer for the hospital, said staffing continues to be the biggest daily challenge at the hospital. The presentation calls that problem the “#1 ‘supply chain’ disruption,” on top of a nursing shortage that existed before the pandemic and a 23.5 percent nursing vacancy rate. But the plan envisions filling the gaps from the clinical and non-clinical labor pool and boosting pay for overtime.

“We all know the impact within our communities, within our schools — that all plays a factor in how we’re able to staff,” Beck said.

The hospital has had to rehire travel nurses and ask nurses and other clinicians who have left bedside nursing to come back to provide what the hospital is calling “functional nursing,” which includes providing supportive care and administering patient tests, Beck said.

Beck said MU Health Care is also experiencing a higher call-in rate for staff not able to come into work.

“We’re averaging anywhere from 6 to 9% call-ins, and that’s due to our workforce, a variety of reasons,” Beck said.

University Hospital, Missouri Orthopedic Institute and Women’s and Children’s all have the capacity to care for COVID-19 patients, she noted.

“We look at 197 patients at University Hospital, 58 at the Missouri Orthopedic Institute, and we could do probably 60 plus at Women’s and Children’s Hospital,” Beck said.

According to MU Health Care’s presentation, the MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital had 36 planned COVID-19 beds as of Dec. 1 but has room for expansion, which is why Beck’s number is larger than the one in the presentation.

MU Health Care also has more than 192 ventilator-capable beds.

Rooms in the hospital’s progressive care unit have been “cohorted” several times, meaning two patients have been put in the same room to decrease the use of PPE, Beck said.

“The biggest risk to a health care worker is when they are removing the gown and so the least amount of times that they need to do that is better, safer,” Beck said.

According to an internal document from November, MU Health Care had deferred more than 700 patients since July because of staffing and bed shortages, the Missourian reported. Deferrals refer to when a patient cannot be accepted from another facility because of a bed shortage or because the hospital does not provide the type of care necessary.

Lately, the hospital has had to defer people with COVID-19, Beck said.

One factor in making the decision on whether to turn away a patient with COVID-19 is location as the hospital has received calls to take patients from other states, Beck said.

MU Health Care’s incident command team meets every morning to evaluate bed needs and operating room numbers. The team also looks at positivity rates to see what that could mean for patient numbers in the future.

Beck wants the public to know that the hospitals are prepared if a surge in COVID-19 patients happens.

“We really do monitor that very, very closely and make our plans based on that,” Beck said. “But we are very much data-driven for how we’re making our decisions.”

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Public Life reporter, fall 2020. Studying data journalism. Reach me at, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

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