Washington hospitals look to fill nursing shortage as Omicron variant concerns grow

Published by FOX 12 OREGON on 11/30/21 (Source)

Hospitals in Washington are putting up help wanted signs, looking to fill a nurse shortage.

The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) conducted a survey of 80 hospitals in the state that make up 85% of beds. They found a shortage of 6,100 nurses.

Chelene Whiteaker is the Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for WSHA and she said this number is concerning. But this shortage also follows a national trend of staffing shortages in other industries.

"Right now, were facing a significant shortage in terms of were not graduating or educating enough people to care for those who need health care," Whiteaker said.

To fill in the gaps, nearly 3,000 traveling nurses are working at Washington Hospitals. That means another 3,000 are still needed. But both WSHA, and the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) don't see traveling nurses as a long-term solution. Whiteaker said those nurses can get paid several times more than a full-time nurse at a hospital. This creates an unsustainable business model.

“It’s not a long-term solution," Whiteaker said. "Travelers typically come in when you have someone out on leave who might be coming back as an employee.”

Executive director of WSNA, David Keepnews, agrees. Traveling nurses are too expensive for hospitals to keep around and they create another problem.

“Great so you’ve lured nurses from the hospitals that they’re in," Keepnews said. "That might solve short term the staffing problems at one hospital, but you’ve almost literally robbed Peter to pay Paul. It’s not a solution and it’s not sustainable.”

Nurses in Washington are leaving for various reasons the WSHA study found. Some include burnout from the pandemic, change in career, retirement, relocating with a spouse, and the vaccine mandate. Whiteaker said the vaccine mandate played a small role in the shortage.

“Statewide we think we lost anywhere from 1.3 to 1.9% of nurses who were leaving because of the vaccine mandate," Whiteaker said.

But to keep nurses at the bedside Keepnews said hospitals need to pay nurses more. But to Keepnews, pay is just as important as creating a healthy working environment with all the stresses nurses are put under.

"Obviously nurses have committed themselves, have put themselves at risk, and have worked longer and longer hours to meet patient needs," Keepnews said. "But with chronic understaffing it’s made their situation worse and worse. "

With the Omicron variant now posing the threat of a new surge in COVID cases across the country, proper staffing at hospitals comes at a critical time for hospitals across the country. Whiteaker said Washingtonians should still expect top tier care. But Keepnews disagrees.

"We like to say safe staffing, save lives, and we mean it," Keepnews said.