Oklahoma deals with nurse, staff shortage in hospitals

In this July 16 photo, nurses and doctors in the CoxHealth Emergency Department in Springfield, Missouri, don personal protective equipment to treat patients with COVID-19. As the Delta variant fills hospitals with patients, a shortage of hospital staff and nurses is emerging.

NORMAN – As the Delta variant of COVID-19 makes its way through the state, hospitals are once again filling with patients who have contracted the virus as well as a shortage of hospital staff and nurses to help care for them.

Oklahoma hospitals are hoping to find ways to combat the shortage while caring for the growing number of patients. 

“The biggest issue in Oklahoma right now is the shortage of staffing nurses,” Dr. Dale Bratzler, University of Oklahoma Health Enterprise quality chief, said. “Just because you have a bed available doesn’t mean you can staff it and open the bed in the hospital.”

According to an Associated Press article, the loss of workers is due to burnout and more lucrative out-of-state temporary work.

“We lost a lot of nurses through the COVID pandemic,” Bratzler said. “Some gave up, changed jobs, went working remotely – lots of reasons. I think that’s one of the big problems.” 

Bratzler said that in January and February hospitals could handle the capacity, but not now. “We can’t do it now because we don’t have enough nurses and personnel to take care of all those patients,” he said.

The rising number of cases is due to the Delta variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which is more than two times contagious as previous variants and can cause more severe illness in people. 

“We’re dealing with a different virus. The Delta variant, though it’s a coronavirus, it behaves very differently that the Alpha variant that we were dealing with last year,” Bratzler said. “The number of cases is going up incredibly rapidly, much more so than we saw last summer and we know that a certain percentage of people who get COVID-19 will end up in the hospital.” 

Bratzler said the Delta variant is “so contagious” that if someone is infected with it he or she has 1,000 to 1,200 times more virus in the upper respiratory tract, nose, mouth and lungs than if infected with the Alpha variant.

“It spreads,” he said. “I told people think of a cloud that’s around you when you’re talking or doing anything, shouting, singing, anything, breathing. There’s a cloud of virus around you and a whole lot more of it with the Delta variant.” 

He said wearing a mask and social distancing is still an important mitigation strategy to reduce transmission.

Though nursing shortages in the state are not new, institutions such as OU Health are offering incentives to combat the current shortage. 

“According to the Federal Bureau of Health Workforce, Oklahoma has 44,200 nurses, which translates to 11.1 nurses per 1,000 people,” said Jennifer Schultz, senior vice president of OU Medicine. “Across OU Health, there is a 19% nursing vacancy rate and that’s not a new situation. There has been shortages of nursing across the country and the state for years. According to the American Nurses Association, there will be more registered nurse jobs available throughout 2022 than any other profession in the United States. Many factors contributed to the increased need. An aging population is driving demand for health care services and nurses who are baby boomers are getting ready for retirement.”

Though they are not immediate fixes, incentives include relocation and sign-on bonuses, a weekend program, travel-at-home program and a nursing degree accelerator program.

Other states, such as Florida, are battling the same shortages and offering employed nurses who work extra hours time-and-a-half plus an additional $500 per additional 12-hour shift, according to an AP article. 

“I’m quite concerned about hospitals being overwhelmed, principally because we just don’t have the staffing that we had when we dealt with the first round,” said Bratzler.