By Jeff Wagner

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The COVID-19 pandemic has been an 18-month grind that’s only become more grueling for health care workers, so much so that their numbers are dwindling.

“It’s taken a toll and there are fewer staff in most of our institutions than there have been for a long time,” said Jan Malcolm, the Minnesota Department of Health commissioner. She cited burnout and stress as two key reasons. Other health care experts mentioned workers catching COVID-19 and needing to quarantine, as well as family needs at home forcing them to step away.

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A spokesperson for Hennepin Healthcare said, “Like other hospitals throughout the state, HCMC has been experiencing higher than average patient volumes that are greatly impacted by staffing shortages, COVID, a busy trauma season, and an increase in high-acuity patients.”

Allina Health is also weathering a drop in staff, so much so that it is now delaying some elective surgeries up to 90 days because of the issue, so long as the delay has no serious medical consequence.

“People typically have set aside time away from work, and arranged for child care, and arranged their lives around procedures that require hospitalization. And so it’s a big effect. We don’t take this lightly at all,” said Dr. Robert Quickel, vice president of surgical services.

Delaying surgeries opens up hospital capacity and frees up nurses to tend to other critical patients, given that some post-surgery stays can last up to two weeks. While necessary, Quickel sympathizes with those who have been waiting to get operations, only to have them postponed.

“The term elective surgery is a little bit of a misnomer. Nobody signs up for surgery because it’s lots of fun. They sign up for surgery because they need surgery,” he said.

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Filling the staffing gaps means incentives for new hires and searching for travel nurses. But competition is fierce. The demand for travel nurses around the country has become so high, some job openings offer anywhere from $5,000 to $9,000 in pay per week.

“Right now there about 47,000 open traveling nurse positions across our nation and so it’s very, very difficult to find those folks,” Quickel said.

Some feel finding new nurses shouldn’t be the only priority.

“They have got to figure out a way to entice the nurses that are staying to stay,” said Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association and a COVID ICU nurse at North Memorial Hospital.

She’s seen nurses leave the field to go back to school or transfer to different parts of hospitals.

She says health care systems aren’t just losing staff, they’re losing veteran leadership.

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“Well over 50% of our nurses in our field are under five years [experience] now. And so you’ve got to have somebody around to be able to teach the younger generations,” she said. “A bed empties and you’ve got three people waiting to take it. And we only keep up that pace so long.”

Jeff Wagner