CORONAVIRUS

Hospitals are desperate for nurses, so schools like UI are getting graduates, interns to work faster

In this Nov. 5 photo, Deb Dalsing, nurse manager of the COVID-19 treatment unit at University of Wisconsin Health assist
In this Nov. 5 photo, Deb Dalsing, nurse manager of the COVID-19 treatment unit at University of Wisconsin Health assists nurse Ainsley Billesbach with her personal protective equipment at the hospital in Madison, Wis. Hospitals slammed with COVID-19 patients are trying to lure nurses out of retirement and recruiting nursing students and new graduates who have yet to earn their licenses. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

OMAHA — Hospitals slammed with COVID-19 patients are luring nurses out of retirement, recruiting students and new graduates who have yet to earn their licenses and offering eye-popping salaries in a bid to ease staffing shortages.

With the virus surging from coast to coast, the number of patients with the virus in the nation’s hospitals has more than doubled over the past month to a record high of nearly 100,000.

Dr. Eli Perencevich, an epidemiology and internal medicine professor at the University of Iowa, said health care workers are paying the price for other peoples’ refusal to wear masks.

“It’s sending everyone to war, really,” he said. “We’ve decided as a society that we’re going to take all the people in our health care system and pummel them because we have some insane idea about what freedom really is.”

Hospitalizations in Iowa have ticked down in recent days, but remain nearly triple what they were at the peak of last summer’s surge.

“Nurses are under immense pressure right now,” said Kendra McMillan, a senior policy adviser for the American Nurses Association. “We’ve heard from nurses on the front lines who say they’ve never experienced the level of burnout we’re seeing right now.”

Governors in hard-hit states like Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska have made it easier for retired nurses or nurses who have let licenses lapse to come back, though it can be a tough sell for older nurses who would be in more danger than many of their colleagues if they contracted the virus.

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But some are taking jobs that don’t involve working directly with patients to free up needed front-line nurses, McMillan said.

Iowa is allowing temporary, emergency licenses for new nurses who have met the state’s educational requirements but haven’t yet taken the state licensing exam. Some Minnesota hospitals are offering winter internships to nursing students to boost their staffs. The internships are typically offered in the summer but were canceled this year because of COVID-19.

Methodist Hospital in Minneapolis will place 25 interns for one to two months to work with COVID-19 patients, though certain tasks will remain off-limits, such as inserting IVs or urinary catheters, said Tina Kvalheim, who runs the program.

Landon Brown, 21, of Des Moines, a senior nursing student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, recently accepted an internship at the Mayo Clinic in Mankato. He was assigned to the pediatric unit’s medical-surgical area but said he might come across patients with the coronavirus.

Brown’s resolve to help patients as a nurse was reaffirmed after his 90-year-old grandfather contracted the virus and died over the weekend.

“The staff that he had were great, and they really took a lot of pressure off of my folks and my family,” he said. “I think that if I can be that for another family, that would be great.”

The UI College of Nursing also is trying to get graduates into the workforce quickly. It worked to fast-track students’ transcripts to the Iowa Board of Nursing so they could get licensed sooner upon graduating, said Anita Nicholson, associate dean for undergraduate programs.

Nicholson said the college also scheduled senior internships earlier than usual and created a program that allows students to gain hospital experience under a nurse’s supervision. Those students aren’t caring for coronavirus patients, but their work frees up nurses to do so, Nicholson said.

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“The sooner we can get our graduates out and into the workforce, the better,” she said.

The Wausau, Wis.based Aspirus Health Care is offering signing bonuses of up to $15,000 for nurses with a year of experience.

Hospitals also are turning to nurses who travel from state to state to take contract jobs. But that’s expensive. Hospitals around the country are competing for them, driving salaries as high as $6,200 per week, according to postings for travel nursing jobs.

April Hansen, executive vice president at San Diego-based Aya Healthcare, said there are now 31,000 openings for travel nurses, more than twice the number being sought when the pandemic surged in the spring.

“It is crazy,” Hansen said. “It doesn’t matter if you are rural or urban, if you are an Indian health facility or an academic medical center or anything in between. ... All facilities are experiencing increased demand right now.”

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