‘Staffing crisis’ grips Iowa hospitals as COVID cases climb

contributed photo Iowa has reached a new high this year for hospitalizations of people with COVID-19.

A recent job posting that seeks temporary critical care nurses for a major Des Moines hospital offered pay of $100 per hour and a weekly stipend of about $1,200 for three months of work.

The demand for so-called “traveling nurses” from other states has risen as longstanding nursing shortages have been exacerbated by a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

There were 777 people infected by the coronavirus who were receiving inpatient treatment at Iowa hospitals on Wednesday, the highest number yet this year, according to state data. That number was up 8 percent in the past week.

“Hospitals are in a staffing crisis,” said Jennifer Nutt of the Iowa Hospital Association. “The staffing shortages have been terrible for a while now. The current surge will also have an impact.”

State officials are in the process of hiring 100 temporary nurses and respiratory therapists to help alleviate those shortages at 17 facilities that provide higher levels of care, said Sarah Ekstrand, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Public Health.

That plan was first reported by Bleeding Heartland.

Ekstrand said the state will use federal funds to cover the costs. She declined to elaborate on the total estimated cost, how the health care workers will be hired, and whether the state has previously paid for supplemental hospital staff during the pandemic.

There are about 100 hospitals that were not eligible for the additional help, but Ekstrand said those mostly rural hospitals will have more opportunities to transfer critically ill patients to the larger facilities, “allowing their teams to focus on care for those who are less critically ill.”

MercyOne Des Moines Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals in the state, will get eight of the supplemental staff, said Marcy Peterson, a MercyOne spokesperson.

Several UnityPoint Health hospitals will also receive the extra help, but the location in Fort Dodge didn’t qualify, said Shannon McQuillen, a spokesperson for that hospital.

“I wish we did,” she said. “Everybody is experiencing nursing shortages. It’s nationwide.”

The shortages have been an issue for years as the United States’ older adult populations have swelled. The total number of people ages 65 and older — who are more likely to require medical help than younger people — grew about 34 percent in the last decade, according to U.S. Census data.

Last year, the state conducted its first-ever Iowa Nursing Demand Survey of those who employ nurses, and “finding qualified candidates” was the most commonly reported workforce challenge. About half of the employers said they increased overtime or hours for their current staff because of nurse shortages. About 19 percent said they hired a less-qualified job candidate.


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