COVID-related nursing shortages hit hospitals nationwide

Dec. 1, 2020

COVID-19–related shortages of personal protective equipment and drugs continue to plague the US healthcare system, but now in the third US pandemic wave, nursing and other staffing shortages are sweeping the country, reported the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP).

To address nursing shortages in early November, North Dakota governor Doug Burgum began allowing asymptomatic nurses infected with COVID-19 to continue working with COVID patients, and Kalispell Regional Medical Center in northwestern Montana stopped quarantining COVID-exposed staff as long as they were asymptomatic.

Other healthcare workers are also facing widespread shortages, but nurses are at the forefront of direct patient care.

When Meghan Goldammer, JD, RN, chief nursing officer of Sanford Health, which employs almost 10,000 nurses, talks about the COVID-19 pandemic, she highlights how her agency has been able to respond and cites emerging vaccines and therapies as the light at the end of the tunnel. Goldammer says that, by predicting the current surge, adding an upscale training program, and shifting to team models for the ICU, Sanford Health has "the appropriate level of staff to take care of our communities right now."

Those communities, which are throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas, are embroiled in COVID-19. The rise in cases has left Sanford Health locations such as its Bismarck, North Dakota, hospital with one staffed ICU bed available, and the healthcare system is asking retired nurses to return to work, triaging nonemergency surgeries, and opening a new building to deal with the surge, according to MPR and the Bismarck Tribune.

Goldammer says the healthcare system has been able to hire about 300 travel nurses as opposed to the usual 50. This is in addition to reinforcements from the US Air Force that are being deployed to North Dakota.

Staffing agencies have been thriving after the first-wave furloughs gave way to a mix of COVID needs and backlogged procedures. To help, regulations have become more flexible during the pandemic to allow nurses to move from state to state more easily, says John Maaske, the CEO of Triage Staffing, based in Omaha, Nebraska.

By Maaske's estimates, about 15 percent of positions Triage has right now are COVID crisis jobs, although many of the "normal" jobs have crisis rates tied to them. While the average wait time between a job posting and fulfillment is two to three weeks, Triage has continued to improve operational efficiency and has plans to roll out technology that automatically connects a qualified candidate with an opening by the end of March 2021. Triage is experiencing record high placement and workforce volume, and the high numbers aren't an industry anomaly.

To try to supplement its in-house workforce, Indiana University (IU) Health held its semiannual career fair online this November. The three-day event advertised more than 600 openings and led to 82 candidates, says IU Health Vice President of Talent Acquisition Tanya Hahn, JD, which was more than normal. IU Health is contracting with about 210 travel nurses, about 140 more than normal. Hahn hopes that with the help of relocation packages, some will stay on permanently.

With travel nurses often going to the highest bidder—a recent Kaiser Health News article found that some postings offered nurses $10,000 per week—some health systems have been unable to compete.

ICU nurses especially have a large turnover, not only because of the alarm fatigue but because of the desire to have better schedules, lower risk, or career advancement. Before the pandemic, new nurses were rarely placed in the ICU. But now, to help address the deficit, internships, preceptorships, and residency programs have been put in place to ensure a continued flow of workers.

CIDRAP has the report.

More COVID-19 coverage HERE.