COVID-19 intensifies the national nursing shortage

This story was published in the Fall 2021 issue of The Washington Nurse magazine.

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.