COVID-19 intensifies the national nursing shortage

Nearly every state in the country is in dire need of nurses. Yet, the solutions are obvious. The only way out of this crisis is through a massive investment in our country’s nursing education infrastructure and personnel.

Covid 19 intensifies the national nursing shortage 2

For years, national nursing leaders and health care experts warned of a looming nursing shortage…Add a global pandemic, and that shortage is here.

Nearly every state in the country is in dire need of nurses. Yet, the solutions are obvious. The only way out of this crisis is through a massive investment in our country’s nursing education infrastructure and personnel.

According to the American Nurses Association (ANA):

By 2022, there will be far more registered nurse jobs available than any other profession, at more than 100,000 per year. With more than 500,000 seasoned RNs anticipated to retire by 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for 1.1 million new RNs for expansion and replacement of retirees, and to avoid a nursing shortage.”

With the national nursing shortage already exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, immediate steps must be taken to ensure we retain our current nursing workforce while investing in expansion of our state’s nursing schools.

Stop the bleeding: Retain current nurses

First and foremost, hospitals and other health care facilities must immediately invest in retaining our current nursing workforce. Burnout associated with COVID-19 working conditions and post-traumatic stress disorder is leading to an exodus of nurses. Some nurses are choosing to retire; others are abandoning hometown hospitals for more lucrative traveler positions. Some nurses are leaving the profession altogether. Now is the time to double down on retention strategies to keep the nurses who have kept our hospitals, long-term care facilities, public health departments and schools running for more than 18 months of the pandemic.

“Wage wars” for nurses are intensifying the current crisis by creating an unstable market that prioritizes travel nurses over local nurses. During last fall’s coronavirus surge, some hospitals offered $6,000, $8,000 or even $10,000 per week to travel nurses. In-house bedside nurses in those same facilities were making far less for doing the same work. This situation has left long-term, community-based nurses feeling undervalued and underpaid.

A lesson from history

This isn’t the first-time the U.S. has faced a massive nursing shortage — one that threatened to shut down civilian hospitals within our country’s borders. During World War II, so many nurses left to support the war effort that hospitals within the states were left in a dire shortage. As part of the war effort, the U.S. created the Cadet Nurse Corps to recruit and train new nurses — all women.

Nurses in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps helped save and support stateside health care and went on to serve long careers in our state’s hospitals, long-term care facilities and nursing schools.

The U.S. and Washington state are capable of building back our national nursing workforce. The only way out of this crisis is through a massive investment in our country’s nursing education infrastructure and personnel.

Nurse shortages are a long-standing issue, but because of COVID, it is anticipated to grow even more by next year. Nurses and other health workers are overworked, and they are exhausted from the pandemic.”
— Dr. Ernest Grant, president of ANA, told ABC News on May 21, 2021

Washington state leads the way

In 2019, the Washington State Legislature demonstrated its commitment to addressing the impending nursing shortage by investing $40 million to increase nurse educator salaries in community and technical colleges. Now that shortage has arrived, throwing many of our local hospitals and long-term care facilities into a staffing crisis — one that is being felt by nurses and patients alike.

That initial investment is working. Applications are increasing for vacant nursing faculty positions at nursing schools throughout the state, and those positions are being filled faster. In turn, this has allowed many programs to increase the number of slots for nursing students, meaning they are accepting more qualified applicants and graduating more new nurses.

Even with this initial investment, our state’s nursing schools are still turning away hundreds of qualified applicants due to limited enrollment slots. Last spring, Vicky Hertig, dean of nursing at Seattle Colleges, told the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee that her program is still turning away 300 qualified applicants each year due to limited enrollment slots.

The roadmap to alleviate the nursing shortage is clear: As a country, we have done it before. We must make a significant investment in nursing education and grow our own Washington nurses who want to serve their communities. Stealing nurses from other states is no longer a viable option; every state has a nursing shortage.

These are the steps we must take immediately to increase new nurses in Washington state:

  • Invest in our nursing schools to create more student enrollment slots.
  • Place emphasis on investing in those nursing schools that graduate more diverse nurses.
  • Provide adequate student support programs, such as tutoring and child care.
  • Ensure hospitals and other practices are providing adequate clinical placements.
  • Streamline the number of hours required for clinical placements.
  • Increase funding for the health profession loan repayment program and focus on nursing.
  • Create student loan forgiveness for graduate school nurses who commit to three years teaching in a Washington state nursing program.

WSNA looks forward to discussing these solutions with the Washington State Legislature and other partners. The time to invest in nursing education is now. We can’t wait.