US hospitals hit by nursing crisis as pandemic rages on

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a nursing crisis that is forcing many US hospitals to pay a high price to get the help they need to manage the patient crash this summer.

The problem, according to health officials, is twofold: nurses are resigning or retiring, exhausted or demoralized by the crisis. And many leave for lucrative temporary jobs with itinerant nursing agencies that can pay $ 5,000 or more per week.

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It got to the point where the doctors say, “Maybe I should stop being a doctor and become a nurse,” said Dr. Phillip Coule, chief medical officer at Augusta University Medical Center in Georgia, who has occasionally seen 20 to 30 resignations. within a week of nurses taking itinerant jobs.

“And then we have to pay bonuses for staff from another state to come to our state,” Coule said.

The average salary of a traveling nurse has gone from around $ 1,000 to $ 2,000 per week before the pandemic to $ 3,000 to $ 5,000 now, said Sophia Morris, vice president of the care recruitment company Aya Healthcare Healthcare, based in San Diego. She said Aya had 48,000 itinerant nurse positions to fill.

At competitor SimpliFi, chairman James Quick said the hospitals his company works with were seeing unprecedented levels of vacancies.

“Small and medium-sized hospitals typically have dozens of full-time openings, and large healthcare systems have hundreds of full-time openings,” he said.

The salary explosion has made it difficult for hospitals without deep enough pockets.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly recently lamented that state hospitals risk being outbid for nurses by other states that pay a “fortune.” She said on Wednesday that several hospitals, including one in Topeka, had beds open but no nurses to staff them.

In Kansas City, Missouri, Truman Medical Centers has lost about 10 nurses to travel jobs in recent days and is looking for travelers to replace them, CEO Charlie Shields said.

He said it’s hard to compete with travel agencies, which charge hospitals $ 165 to $ 170 an hour per nurse. He said the agencies were taking a big chunk of it, but he estimated nurses still make $ 70 to $ 90 an hour, two to three times what the hospital pays its nurses.

“I clearly think people are taking advantage of the demand that is there,” Shields said. “I hate to use ‘gouged’ as a description, but we are clearly paying a premium and allowing people to have pretty high profit margins.”

In Texas, more than 6,000 travel nurses have flooded the state to help soar through a state-supported program. But on the same day that 19 of them went to work at an upstate hospital, another 20 nurses at the same location announced they were leaving on a travel contract, said Carrie Kroll, vice president of the Texas Hospital Association.

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“The nurses who have not left, who have stayed in their establishments, they see these other people coming in now who are making more money. It creates a tense work environment, ”Kroll said.

The pandemic was in its early stages when Kim Davis, 36, decided to quit her job at an Arkansas hospital and become a travel nurse. She said she roughly doubled her income in the 14 months she treated patients in intensive care units in Phoenix; San Bernardino, California; and Tampa, Florida.

“Since traveling, I have paid off all my debts. I paid off about $ 50,000 in student loans, ”she said.

Davis said many of his colleagues are following the same path.

“They go traveling because why would you do the same job for half the salary?” ” she said. “If they risk their lives, they should be compensated.

Health officials say nurses are exhausted and frustrated at being asked to work overtime, being yelled at and questioned by community members and dealing with people who have chosen not to. to be vaccinated or not to wear a mask.

“Imagine going to work everyday and working the hardest you’ve ever worked and coming out of work and what you see everyday is being denied to the public,” said Julie Hoff, chief nurse at OU Health in Oklahoma. “The death you see everyday is neither honored nor recognized.”

Meanwhile, hospitals are pressed by the revolving door of departures and new hires from travel agencies.

Coule cited a recent example in which her hospital in Georgia hired a respiratory therapist through an agency to replace a staff member who had decided to take on itinerant work. The replacement came from the same hospital where his respiratory therapist had just worked.

“Basically we have swapped staff, but at double the cost,” he said.

Patricia Pittman, director of the Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at George Washington University, said many nurses still harbor resentment towards their employers since the early stages of the pandemic, in part because they were forced to work without adequate protective equipment.

“Nurses say, ‘Hey, if I’m not treated with respect, I might as well become a travel nurse,’” she said. “That way I can go to work in hell for 13 weeks, but then I can take a few months or three months and go do whatever it takes. “

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