Since the coronavirus started spreading in March it has had a huge impact on Alabama nurses.
“Their whole system, as the largest workforce in health care, was disrupted,” said John Ziegler, the executive director of the Alabama State Nurses Association.
In response to COVID-19, hospitals stopped elective surgeries and shut down outpatient clinics, leaving some nurses out of work. Meanwhile, demand was up dramatically for others who had specialized skills, such as ICU experience. As time went on, some nurses quit or retired early, while others got sick.
Flash forward to today. Many hospitals have completely reopened and are short-staffed.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, said the shortage is a big concern. Although the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 has declined in recent weeks, hospitals continue to care for hundreds of COVID patients, and Williamson said many employees are exhausted.
“The issue for us is staffing,” he said. “It’s not beds or ventilators.”
The pandemic has made things worse, but Williamson said the nursing shortage has been a problem for years. He said this is due to many factors, including burnout, but the biggest barrier is that Alabama is a poor state.
“We have one of the least well-reimbursed health care systems in America,” Williamson said.
That means salaries are lower, making it more difficult to recruit nurses.
To make up for the shortage, in recent months hospitals have increased recruitment and reassigned staff to high-demand units. And a growing number are turning to contract staffing agencies or travel nursing companies to fill vacancies.
Susan Whitman is the executive vice president of Freedom Healthcare Staffing, a travel nursing company that operates nationwide. She said Freedom did not do much business in Alabama in the past, but now the company is serving hospitals throughout the state.
“COVID has changed the dynamic of where staff is needed, and needed quickly,” Whitman said.
She said most hospitals are requesting critical care nurses, who are often needed on the frontlines to treat COVID patients.
Alabama’s largest hospital, UAB, is down several hundred nurses, according to CEO Will Ferniany. He said they are relying on travel nurses to meet demand.
“These are people we’ve hardly ever used before,” Ferniany said during a recent press conference.
Contracting short-term staff is expensive. Depending on the position and the need, travel nurses can earn double or even triple the weekly salaries of full-time employees. In fact, Ferniany said some full-time nurses have quit their jobs at UAB to make more money as travel nurses.
Lisa Cox spent 17 years working for hospitals in north Alabama before quitting in January to become a traveling nurse, in part because of the pay. She doesn’t work in COVID units, but Cox said the job is challenging. She is often deployed to hospitals where staff nurses are working overtime and struggling to meet demand.
“You know they’ve been working short staffed so long, they’re just thankful to have the help,” Cox said.
Pandemic aside, health officials said the nursing shortage is not going away anytime soon. Some universities and colleges are working to train more students, but officials say they also face a shortage of nurse educators.