Alaska has long struggled with a nursing shortage. The pandemic has made the situation worse.

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Long before COVID-19 arrived in Alaska, the state was plagued by a shortage of nurses. Today, healthcare industry professionals say the pandemic has drawn attention to the problem – and, in some cases, perhaps even made it worse.

“There’s a lot of burnout, a lot of stress,” said Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

Many nurses in Alaska who were older and more susceptible to serious illness from COVID-19 chose to retire earlier. Others have left the profession altogether.

Kosin and others have also described how Alaskan health workers has long relied on passing workers from Lower 48.

During the pandemic, they said, some nurses out of state left in search of higher pay or to help in places of greater need while many of those who did not had no close ties to Alaska returned home to be closer to their families and loved ones.

Some of the nurses who have remained in the profession have described the current climate as a kind of crossroads.

Carrie Doyle, Business Development Manager for Surgical / Cariology Services at the Therapeutic Garden at Providence Medical Center, June 30, 2021 (Anne Raup / ADN)

“Now that we are hopefully at the end of the pandemic, we are starting to come down from that adrenaline rush of last year, a year and a half,” said Carrie Doyle, RN and currently director of Providence Alaska. Medical Center.

“Now that nurses have the time, they’re really starting to ask, ‘Where am I in my career? ‘Am I where I want to be?’ ” she said.

One measure of the current shortage is the number of nursing jobs available statewide.

A quick search for nursing jobs in Providence will likely generate more than 100 vacancies, said Florian Borowski, the hospital’s director of human resources.

“There are a lot of opportunities for people with the RN certificate,” he said. This was true before the pandemic, and is especially true now as the demand for nurses to fill these jobs increases, he said.

At the Alaska Native Medical Center, Dr Robert Onders, the hospital administrator, said that while the demand for nurses has remained relatively constant during the pandemic, he has recently seen a change across the board. hospital in terms of vacancies – and types of jobs remaining. unfilled.

More and more vacancies appear to be opening up, especially for entry-level hospital positions, which has resulted in higher starting salaries for those jobs, he said.

“We feel this tension: CNAs, CMAs, lab technicians, respiratory technicians, surgical technicians, pharmacy technicians – these are all positions that are essential to this care as a health care team,” he said. he declared.

“It’s a challenge right now because there are many opportunities in several sectors that need people to fill these positions,” he said.

Alaska health experts say the potential for a worsening nursing shortage in the state and nationwide has been a major concern for years.

In 2017, a large-scale study conducted by the Federal Health Services and Resources Administration found that there would likely be a significant nursing deficit by 2030 across the country – and particularly in Alaska, said Marianne Murray, director of nursing at Alaska Pacific University. at Anchor.

One of the roots of the problem was that most of the nurses surveyed were from a larger generation of baby boomers who were around five to ten years away from retirement, according to the study. One Alaska-specific piece of the puzzle involved the state’s geography and education options, Murray said.

Marianne Murray is Director of Nursing at Alaska Pacific University. Photographed July 1, 2021 (Anne Raup / ADN)

It’s more difficult to travel to and from Alaska than other states, and Alaska doesn’t have as many nursing schools as other states, according to Murray. “This makes the replenishment of these latter posts more difficult,” she said.

Alaska has also long been a temporary home for large numbers of traveling nurses who come to the state on short-term assignments, she added.

“It’s kind of like that kind of constant hamster wheel trying to fill the gap,” Murray said.

During the pandemic, the salary and demand for mobile nurses also increased nationally as COVID-19 increased. At various times throughout the pandemic, that demand has pushed travel nurses out of the state to places with higher cases and deaths, or more competitive pay, said Donna Phillips, president of the Labor Program. of the Alaska Nurses Association and nurse in Providence.

“There is a lot of competition for travel nurses,” she said in a recent interview. “The money started flowing for these travel nurses because people were desperate.”

The pandemic has also drawn attention to existing staff shortages.

“I think even before COVID-19, healthcare workers were an issue and a priority, I think across the state,” Onders said. “COVID has compounded this underlying challenge,” he said.

During the pandemic, the constant attention to the number of available hospital beds was a reminder that it was never just physical beds, Kosin added: the main concern was staffing. The number of staffed beds was the true measure of hospital capacity, he said.

For nurses, the high-risk, high-stress months of the pandemic have also taken their toll. Workers had to make choices related to their personal risk factors, Onders said.

“When COVID patients were at high volume in hospitals, some people chose to potentially change or leave healthcare staff,” he said.

Nationally, “we have lost a number of healthcare workers to COVID who died after contracting it on the job,” Phillips added. “People got nervous about it.”

She is part of the Providence Nurses Union which she says now has around 70 fewer staff nurses than before the pandemic.

“I don’t know how many of these people were full time,” she said. “But it’s still a fairly large number of people that we don’t have working at the hospital anymore.”

In June, with about half of eligible Alaskans vaccinated and COVID-19 generally in decline statewide, many nurses are finally able to catch their breath – and many see this as an opportunity to reflect on their priorities and challenges. types of work environments they want. .

For Phillips, this sounds like a plea for better working conditions and lower patient-nurse ratios. She and her colleagues are currently in negotiations with Providence to try to have fewer patients per nurse and enough nurses to monitor patients during meals and breaks, she said. Phillips has been a nurse in Alaska for over 20 years, and she said long days and long hours can take their toll.

Doyle, one of Providence’s nurse managers, said she sees her leadership role as helping nurses “reconnect with why they got into nursing in the first place.”

She said she hopes more Alaskans, after the pandemic, will continue to recognize how meaningful and important the work of nurses is.

During the pandemic, “everyone saw how nurses contributed to the health of society,” she said.

Murray, director of the APU nursing program, said she recently read a study showing that applications for nursing schools had “skyrocketed” nationwide during the pandemic. She hopes the renewed interest in the field can begin to help solve the Alaskan shortage.

“I think what happened is people saw nurses make a huge difference,” she said. “I mean, they were at the bedside, they were your frontline workers – fearless and always there. So I think people have recognized that it’s a great job.

Upcoming: For years, education options in the state for Alaskans seeking careers in nursing were limited. This is starting to change.


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