Nurse manager Cullen Anderson, RN, screens people in a line of cars waiting to be tested for coronavirus COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing station at St. Luke’s Meridian Medical Center in Idaho on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Darin Oswald | Idaho Statesman | Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Maeleigh Soper, a travel nurse based at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, sat and cried with one of her young patients last month.

Soper works at the hospital’s oncology unit where cancer patients are separated from visitors, including family, to protect those who have compromised immune systems from the coronavirus.

“Last week, all of my patients were extremely emotional,” Soper said. “I sat there and cried with one of them because she’s very young and can’t have her mom there, and it’s so sad and terrifying.”

The coronavirus outbreak ravaging parts of the U.S. has upended the health-care system. Across the country, hospitals are scrambling for doctors, nurses and protective gear, and travel nurses like Soper, who’s from Columbus, Kansas, are helping to fill the void as state and federal officials scramble to try to curb the up to 240,000 deaths projected over the coming weeks.

Crucial help

Travel nurses constitute a relatively small portion of the 3.8 million registered nurses in the U.S., but they are crucial in bridging the gap of supply when hospitals demand more personnel. Now medical staffing firms are racing to fill expected holes at hospitals bracing for an unprecedented influx of patients with COVID-19 across the country, which now has at least 337,600 confirmed cases of the coronavius. 

Aya Healthcare, one of the largest temporary healthcare staffing companies in the country, said it deployed 800 clinicians in less than three weeks to hospitals across the country. While hospitals typically allot three weeks for staffing companies to fill a position, April Hansen, an executive vice president at Aya, said hospitals have started requesting temporary staff within three days. 

“We had a client in Florida that had to stand up for a very large testing site for coronavirus, and that client gave us about 24 hours heads up that they needed 46 clinicians,” Hansen said. 

Dan Weberg, head of clinical innovation at health care staffing firm Trusted Health, said the company has seen hundreds of jobs posted to the company’s website in one day. In the last 30 days, it has seen three to four times more job postings compared to other months, he said. 

Cities scramble

The most job listings are in states like New York, Washington and California where the coronavirus outbreak has spread rapidly. Officials from these states have repeatedly asked medical professionals to come out of retirement and have graduated medical and nursing students early to assist hospitals against the coronavirus.

Even before the pandemic, many hospitals, especially in rural areas, were already experiencing a nursing shortage due to the accelerated rate of nurses retiring in the coming years paired with an aging Baby Boomer population, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. 

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city will need an additional 45,000 medical personnel to fight the pandemic sweeping across the city. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on health-care workers across the country to travel to New York, which accounts for nearly a quarter of all cases in the U.S., to help the state battle the worst coronavirus outbreak in the nation.

‘State of war’

“We’re in a state of war, but we cannot go to battle without ammunition,” de Blasio said in a statement. “To those who are on the frontlines: your city is behind you, and more help is on the way.”

Many hospitals around the country are building teams to treat COVID-19 patients specifically and staffing firms report that temporary travel nurses are the first to be placed into them, reserving the hospital’s core staff for other day-to-day functions. 

Staffing firms, however, are concerned that as the pandemic continues, travel restrictions could make it harder for medical professionals to travel from state to state. On top of that, they have called on states to ease licensing regulations so nurses can rapidly respond to positions in various states. 

As of Tuesday, 42 states and Washington DC have temporarily waived certain licensing requirements and 24 states are expediting licensing for retired or inactive physicians, according to data from the Federation of State Medical Boards. 

Nurses feel like ‘shields’ 

“There are some states that haven’t changed that process, even though they’ve declared a state of emergency,” Weberg said. “And so it’s harder to get nurses into those states.”

The influx of medical personnel has also presented challenges to an already-stressed hospital system, which in many cases has struggled to supply medical personnel with the recommended amount of personal protective equipment, such as gloves, gowns, face masks and face shields.

“They’re being exposed. They don’t have enough equipment and they’re subject to burn out just like anyone else, Weberg said. “But they’re more subject to it now because they are literally in a war zone.”

Hansen said Aya is “addressing situations daily” of clinicians who report working in areas where they feel they’re going to run out of essential personal protective gear. 

Lauren Rodriguez, a travel nurse from Chicago who’s working in the San Francisco area, said that at least three of her friends who are also travel nurses have been tested for the coronavirus in recent weeks. One was negative but the other two are still waiting. A mistake at the lab has delayed the results for one of her friends, she said. At her hospital in California, medical staff are told to use one face mask a day. Under normal circumstances, they typically wear more than four masks a shift. 

“I think the country is relying on travel nurses heavily right now to fill needs and sometimes act as shields,” Rodriguez said. “We are there to fill the void and right now during a pandemic, it doesn’t always feel like the best scenario to be in.”

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