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Despite Omicron Declines, Hospitals in Dire Need of Nurses

Though COVID-19 infections have peaked and states are lifting related restrictions, one set of data hasn’t budged: the number of hospital staff nationwide, which is at a critical low, according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription).

New lows: On Monday, the seven-day average for hospitalized individuals with suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 was down 69% from the all-time high of five weeks earlier, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Yet severe staffing shortages persist“Hospitals from Los Angeles to New York have reported staffing shortages. In 15 states, a third or more of hospitals said they had a critical staffing shortage last month, according to the American Hospital Association. Nurses are among the positions in greatest demand, and two-thirds of hospitals across the country have a nurse vacancy rate of 7.5% or more, the association said.”

Worse than before: Staffing problems are more acute than they were earlier in the pandemic, with one hospital system in Pennsylvania looking for 1,200 nurses, a three-fold increase from a year ago.

Why the exodus? Many nurses are leaving health systems to become travel nurses, who take on short-term contract work for higher pay.

  • The result: Many of the systems that lost nurses to this type of employment are now being forced to use it themselves, paying many times more per hour what they did for staff nurses.
  • “In 2021, the health system spent $57 million on premium pay for traveling nurses and incentives for current staff nurses, up from about $18 million in 2020.”

Asking for aid: Hospitals in Pennsylvania have begun lobbying state lawmakers for help. In January, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a measure putting $225 million in pandemic-relief funds toward hospitals and health systems struggling to pay staffing costs.

Penalty payments: At another Pennsylvania hospital, “the health system is paying about $100,000 a month to nurses in penalties for being over a nurse-to-patient ratio required by a contract at the unionized hospital.”

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