Health care social workers who support medical professionals are reporting a dramatic increase in burnout in America's nursing community. They say that the rapidly escalating surge in COVID-19 infections across the U.S. has caused a shortage of nurses and other front-line staff in virus hot spots that can no longer keep up with the flood of unvaccinated patients and are losing workers to burnout.
The U.S. is averaging more than 116,000 new coronavirus infections a day along with about 50,000 hospitalizations, levels not experienced since the winter surge. Unlike other points in the pandemic, hospitals now have more non-COVID patients for everything from car accidents to surgeries that were postponed during the outbreak.
"Anecdotally, I'm seeing more and more nurses say, 'I'm leaving, I've had enough,'" said Gerard Brogan, director of nursing practice with National Nurses United, an umbrella organization of nurse’s unions across the U.S. "'The risk to me and my family is just too much.'"
Michelle Thomas, a registered nurse and a manager of the emergency department at a Tucson, Arizona, hospital, resigned three weeks ago after hitting a wall. "There was never a time that we could just kind of take a breath," Thomas said Tuesday. She helped other nurses cope with being alone in rooms with dying patients and holding mobile phones so family members could say their final goodbyes. "It's like incredibly taxing and traumatizing," said Thomas, who is unsure if she will ever return to nursing.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have now surpassed the pandemic's worst previous surge in Florida, with no signs of letting up, setting a record of 13,600 on Monday, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 2,800 required intensive care.
Nurses Feel Betrayed and Abandoned
The bravery and dedication of America’s nurses have been displayed in front-page newspaper stories across the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic has also been a huge strain on nurses and the healthcare system, due in part to limited staff and resources.
Jodi Barschow, RN and president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals: "We see a lot of stress, exhaustion, and burnout. People are just done. They want to leave the profession altogether. They want to be able to work safely in an environment, have the staffing that they need to safely care for patients and keep communities healthy. So, it’s up to hospitals to provide these things. It’s their responsibility to resource so that we can do our jobs and provide the best patient care. So, when people are coming to work in situations that are short staffed, and you don’t really know what’s coming in through the door, high volume of patients, high acuity, vulnerable populations that haven’t sought care maybe throughout the whole year or more due to the pandemic, medically fragile patients, social determinant needs, psychiatric needs. All of that, combined with the shortages and staffing, and not just nursing, but all of the health care professionals and the ancillary staff around that really need to support the patients to keep them healthy."
The nursing shortage facing America that began long before the pandemic propelled it into the crisis stage was caused by:
- Increasing Demand - The country has a larger population over the age of 65 than ever before in its history. This 65+ demographic has grown rapidly, jumping from 41 million people in 2011 to 71 million in 2019—a whopping 73% increase. This increased patient demand for care has exacerbated a critical nursing shortage.
- The Retirement Drain - A 2015 study predicted that over one million RNs will retire from the workforce between now and 2030. As they go, they take with them their invaluable amount of accumulated knowledge and nursing experience.
- Educator Shortage - One recent report discovered that, in 2020, over 80,000 qualified nursing school applicants were turned away from baccalaureate and graduate programs due to a lack of qualified faculty, clinical study sites, classroom space, and budget constraints.
What Can Be Done?
Social workers tasked with conceiving staffing strategies to avoid the collapse of our hospital system posed the following:
- This is an emergency that demands immediate response.
- Working conditions in hospitals must be improved through more careful planning and recognition of the failures of hospital administrations.
- A national initiative around nursing education must be initiated immediately.
- Nurses must be encouraged to “speak up” and seek help when needed.
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