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I-TEAM: Local hospitals feel strain of nursing staff shortage

Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 8:02 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A nationwide nursing shortage is being made worse by the pandemic.

Our I-Team is taking a closer look at our local hospitals as they feel the strain to care for hundreds of COVID patients.

National Guard troops, support staff, extra nurses funded by the state — it’s a luxury our local hospitals had last summer. It’s one Laurie Ott, vice president of human resources and community resources at University Hospital, says they would welcome right now as they work to care for 157 COVID-19 patients.

“I think it’s hard to grasp that a bed in a hospital that’s open. Right now, we have more than 100 beds open at Summerville. The campus at Summerville has beds that don’t have a person in them. It’s not a bed to us unless there’s staff there to take care of them,” she said.

For Augusta University Health, every physical bed they have is full but with regular hospital wings becoming intensive care wings, staffing is stretched thin and they need more help.

“We have people waiting in the emergency dept. for beds in the hospital, which then backs up the emergency department. When you come into the emergency dept. you’re going to experience a delay because the system is overloaded,” said Dr. Phillip Coule, vice president and chief medical officer at Augusta University Health System.

AU is lucky to receive some state assistance to pay for travel nurses. But in a pandemic with so much need, the budget only goes so far because it’s a bidding war to hire them.

“We literally lost a respiratory therapist from here going to a facility in Savannah who lost a respiratory therapist at the exact same time leaving there to work on a traveling contract for us. So all we did is swap personnel and more than doubled the cost,” he said.

All of our hospitals are delaying elective procedures and only scheduling non-emergency surgeries that do not require overnight stays.

“We wouldn’t have to do that if we had enough staff to take care of more people,” said Ott.

But the I-Team found the nursing shortage was a glaring problem before the pandemic even started.

The American Nurses Association estimates by next year, there will be more registered nurse jobs available than any other profession, at more than 100,000 per year. But the pandemic may make that gap even bigger with overwhelmed nurses changing careers or retiring early.

Doctor’s Hospital tells the I-Team since the pandemic started last March, they’ve lost 154 nurses, about a 3 percent upward trend over what they would consider our baseline turnover.

(WRDW)

And it isn’t just hospitals caring for COVID-19 patients feeling the effects. East Central Regional Hospital, our local mental health campus, held a nurse hiring fair a couple of weeks ago and the turnout ...

“Not as great as we’d like,” said Corina Barrow, a chief nurse executive at East Central Regional Hospital. “We have seen a definite spike in our turnover. Very difficult to retain. Some nurses are choosing to retire or take other positions elsewhere, but we have seen a much higher turnover rate within the past year and a half than we’ve seen previously.”

Our I-Team found 78 nursing openings available in the University Healthcare System. Many advertising bonus opportunities:

  • 96 at Doctors Hospital with several emergency departments and ICU nurse postings.
  • 110 across Augusta University’s network, 72 of those at AU Medical Center and 11 at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.

And, this shortage like the pandemic is a problem, unfortunately, that isn’t going away.

“Anyone who isn’t worried isn’t paying attention. It certainly keeps us up here at night at University,” said Ott.

So, what do we do? Hospitals are calling on the Board of Regents to create more capacity in nursing programs to try to meet the demand in the years to come, but in the short term, Coule says he expects this sort of bidding war for travel nursing staff to continue.

For those interested in the open positions at University, click here. For open positions at AU Health click here.

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