In a recent article for The Associated Press, “US hospitals hit with nurse staffing crisis amid COVID,” it’s stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a nurse staffing crisis that is forcing US hospitals to pay top dollar to attract talent in order to handle the crush of patients. According to health leaders, not only are nurses quitting or retiring due to exhaustion and being demoralized from the pandemic, but many others are leaving for lucrative temporary jobs with traveling-nurse agencies.

Average pay for a traveling nurse went from roughly $1,000 to $2,000 per week before the pandemic to $3,000 to $5,000 per week, a 150% to 200% increase. Phillip Coule, MD, MBA, FACEP, chief medical officer at Georgia’s Augusta University Medical Center, which has seen as many as 20-30 resignations per week from nurses taking traveling jobs, stated, “Maybe I should quit being a doctor and go be a nurse.”

Dr. Coule’s acerbic quip highlights the difficulties of the present situation, requiring payment of premium rates to acquire staff from other states. This is punctuated by a statement from Sophia Morris, a vice president at San Diego healthcare staffing firm Aya Healthcare, who has indicated that there are 48,000 openings for traveling nurses to fill.

For hospitals with limited funds, this means open beds with no nurses to staff them as they get consistently outbid for nursing services. Accordingly, the CEO of Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Missouri, Charlie Shields, indicated that his institution has lost 10 nurses to travel jobs in recent days, necessitating their own search for traveling nurses to replace them. The difficulty for many of these medical centers is that travel agencies are charging hospitals $165 to $175 an hour per nurse. Despite agencies taking as much as 58% of that rate, it’s estimated that many of these nurses are still clearing $70 to $90 per hour, or two to three times what a hospital like Truman Medical Centers pays its staff nurses.

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Even in situations where state-supported programs create enticing incentives, like one from Texas that led to more than 6,000 traveling nurses coming to help with pandemic-related surges, gains may still be unable to overcome losses. For instance, according to Carrie Kroll, a vice president at the Texas Hospital Association, the same day that 19 traveling nurses came to work at a hospital in the northern part of the state, 20 other nurses gave notice that they were leaving for traveling contracts of their own.

This demand and supply disparity can create additional issues. For instance, for nurses who do stay, it can create a tense work environment when new nurses come in and immediately make more money. Other examples include hospitals essentially swapping personnel, but at double the original cost.

Of course, not everyone sees this situation in the same way. For instance, in comments on the Twitter posting about The Associated Press story, several nurses stated their support for better pay equity and the belief that physicians would not want to do what nurses are asked to do. For instance, @TheBlondeRN on Twitter didn’t mince words, stating, “… It’s trash wording to blame nurses for the staffing crisis. Blame the for-profit system and greedy administrators.”