116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The state is sending 100 traveling nurses and respiratory therapists to more than a dozens hospitals across Iowa as health care providers grapple with an increasing number of new COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Using federal dollars, the state contracted to send health care staff to 17 facilities that provide level 1, 2 and 3 trauma care, including facilities in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, state public health officials confirmed to The Gazette. These traveling staff, who come from out-of-state, began arriving this week at Iowa hospitals.
The state has deployed this staffing aid in an effort to “enhance capacity, reduce (emergency department) wait room times, facilitate additional transfers of critically ill patients and reduce strain at lower level trauma care facilities allowing their teams to focus on care for those who are less critically ill,” Iowa Department of Public Health spokeswoman Sarah Ekstrand said in an email.
Ekstrand said federal funds “from the most appropriate allowable funding source will be used” to cover the expense, though it's unclear so far how much this initiative will cost.
The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, the state’s largest hospital, confirmed it was receiving staffing assistance through the state, but a spokeswoman could not provide details.
Both Cedar Rapids hospitals — Mercy Medical Center and UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital — also will receive staff, many of whom have already arrived this week.
St. Luke’s received six nurses, who started work Thursday, and is expecting a respiratory therapist to start Monday, said Carmen Kleinsmith, St. Luke’s senior vice president and chief nurse executive.
Six nurses have either arrived or are arriving in the near future at Mercy, reflecting the hospital’s greatest need for registered nurses, said Nancy Hill-Davis, Mercy’s senior vice president and chief talent officer.
All the extra staff are contracted for six weeks, working roughly 60 hours a week directly with COVID-19 patients and assisting where they are needed for inpatient care, such as the emergency department or intensive care unit, local hospital officials said.
“It is likely the state-assigned nurses and respiratory therapist will be working with COVID-19 patients but may also support the increased volume of patients we are seeing in other parts of the hospital related to our increased COVID volumes,” Kleinsmith said.
A total of 28 staff members have been allocated to MercyOne, the Des Moines-based health care system with hospitals across the state, providing “much needed relief to allow us to better recruit and retain our front-line workers,” said spokesman Adam Amdor.
Travel nursing sees growth
The staffing assistance comes as new coronavirus infections continue to rise statewide, prompting hospitalization rates to reach levels not seen since December 2020.
According to the latest state data, there are 806 patients hospitalized as a result of COVID-19, including 179 patients in intensive care units and 132 on ventilators. New daily admissions have exceeded 100 patients in recent days, including the highest 24-hour admission rate that occurred leading up to this past Wednesday.
Those not fully vaccinated continue to make up the majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patient counts.
Statewide, hospital officials have sounded the alarm about the increasing rate of admissions since November, with some top medical leaders saying they anticipate this trend will last all winter. Already, some hospitals in Iowa have opted to postpone some elective surgeries to preserve provider capacity.
Cedar Rapids providers have called for all residents to get the COVID-19 booster shot as soon as possible in order to help alleviate the strain on local hospitals.
Throughout the pandemic, hospitals across Iowa — as well as health care organizations nationwide — have increasingly come to rely on travel nursing and other traveling medical professionals to meet the need. In 2020, travel nursing saw a 35 percent growth from the previous year, as well as an additional 40 percent growth expected for 2021, according to the Washington Post.
Mercy, for example, has contracted with 45 traveling staff for the past three months, “and we could use more,” Hill-Davis said.
Hospitals in Iowa have faced staffing shortages for years, but the pandemic may have exasperated the need as more health care professionals face burn out or are drawn to higher salaries offered by travel nursing agencies.
Hospital officials emphasize they have nursing positions and other staff roles open across their organizations, and that they continue to actively recruit to fill those jobs through bonuses and other financial incentives.
“St. Luke’s and other hospitals are utilizing contract staff to supplement staffing needs because they are experiencing many of the same staffing shortages seen nationwide and the needs may be more pronounced because of working on the pandemic front line for nearly two years,” Kleinsmith said.
“While we continue to recruit for additional care team members, we remain committed to providing safe, compassionate care to those in need,” Amdor said.
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The Washington Post contributed to this report.