COVID-19 has infected more than 114 million people in the United States since the pandemic began 18 months ago and, according to news reports, that number is expected to increase as the contagious “delta” variant surges.
The delta strain appears to infect largely unvaccinated individuals. The resurgence is taxing medical facilities’ ability to cope; they already were struggling to find adequate nursing staff, according to news reports. And the pandemic-related hospitalizations are just the tip of the iceberg.
Two more stressors loom in the healthcare arena. First, researchers estimate more than 15 million infected Americans will be left with “long Covid” – lingering conditions that will affect their health and require long-term care. Second, the long-anticipated “Graying of America” – the millions of Baby Boomers swelling the ranks of the aging – requires increasing, ongoing healthcare and staff.
This confluence of events cries out for urgent state and federal policy reforms, especially when it comes to nursing staff. Nurses are frustrated and exhausted, and hospitals have two staffing challenges: to attract more and to keep those they have.
“We are completely overworked and constantly understaffed,” said one COVID-ICU nurse in metro Atlanta.
“We’re asked to pick up extra shifts for incentive pay, but realistically we should be getting it regardless because we’re doing three times the work to cover the staffing shortages. Basically, it’s a nightmare. And it’s increasing nurse burnout.”
More pay would help nurse retention, she said: “Almost all our staff leaves to take travel assignments, because you get paid four times more for doing the same job. So truthfully, there’s no reason to become staff.”
Three policy reforms could help add to the ranks of Georgia nurses.
Expand loan forgiveness programs. The state already offers service-cancelable loan forgiveness to advanced practice registered nurses willing to practice full-time in an underserved, rural county with a population of 50,000 or less. While these specialized nurses are an important component of care, offering Georgia’s student nurses the ability to work in the state after graduation for a set period in exchange for full or partial college loan forgiveness could help increase nursing staff in the short term; many nurses carry college student debt.
Make permanent Georgia’s temporary interstate licenses. In March 2020, Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order authorized the Georgia Board of Nursing to grant temporary licenses to nurses “licensed in good standing” in other states. The temporary licenses are set to expire September 28. If these nurses were good enough to work in Georgia during the pandemic, they should be good enough to practice in the state permanently. (Georgia is part of the National Licensing Compact, which allows for registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses to have reciprocity with other compact states.)
Expedite licenses. The Georgia Board of Nursing web page on the Secretary of State’s website has this notice: “We appreciate your patience and ask that you allow staff extra time to work through the hundreds of applications received each week.” Another Kemp executive order allows temporary licenses for nursing graduates, but with the nursing shortage, adequate staff to expedite licenses is more crucial.
Federal policy reform could help, too, for these growing staffing needs. Immigration policy should prioritize healthcare workers, facilitating and expediting the process for foreign healthcare professionals to work in the United States. Testing their qualifications is necessary, but by waiving fees, increasing visas and incentivizing applicants (if necessary), qualified workers could reach American shores sooner.
For now, nurses say they’re getting burned out by the pandemic. They want more financial recognition and greater appreciation of their stressful jobs and long hours.
“Hospitals have the money,” said COVID-ICU nurse Naomi Taranis. “It becomes very frustrating to not be compensated fairly while we’re being hoisted as martyrs.”
“They put all the attention on us with how much we do for patients, but the ones who get all the appreciation from the hospitals are the doctors,” said another COVID-ICU nurse. “Nurses are putting in all the work and we basically get told it’s expected of us. It’d be nice to be appreciated as well.”
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