Nursing Shortage Continues Despite Decrease in COVID-19 Patients

picture of a nurse wearing PPE due to COVID
Written by
Miranda Kay, RN
March 7, 2022

COVID-19 cases are down, but nurse shortages are more accentuated than ever before. In January, new COVID-19 cases had passed the one-million mark, peaking on January 10th with 1,433,977 new cases. However, the daily average on March 3rd had plummeted to 51,599 new cases, 55% less than two weeks prior. It would be logical to assume that hospitals would be able to take a breather after the chaos of the Omicron variant, herding people to the ICUs (Intensive Care Units) like cattle. However, hospitals are still reporting not having enough beds for the current demand of patients. How is this possible if hospitals are no longer full? Here comes the reality check: Hospitals can’t fill beds if they don’t have enough nurses to care for the patients.

COVID-19 Patients 

On January 19th, 2022, there were 154,536 COVID-19 patients in hospitals in the United States, 26,463 of whom were in ICUs. Thankfully, by March 1st, 2022, the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals had gone down to 36,161, of which only 7,546 were in ICUs; these numbers are even significantly lower than when the Omicron variant first hit the US at the end of November 2021. The fifth COVID-19 wave has officially passed.

Current Situation of Hospitals in the US

The University of Washington School of Medicine developed a concept called hospital ICU stress, designed to help hospitals plan and manage their surge capacity. The level of stress is determined by the percentage of ICU beds used by COVID-19 patients. Under 10% is considered low stress and between 30-59% is considered high stress.

As of March 3rd, 2022, there were no hospitals in the United States with high or extreme levels of stress, and 31 states measured under 10%. This represents a huge difference from only two weeks before, when two states measured high, and only five states measured low. The difference from only four weeks prior is even more significant, with 18 states measuring high and only one US territory measuring low.  

In addition to the decrease in COVID-19 patients, the current situation of US hospitals – with most states officially under low stress – would indicate that the hospital crisis should be over, and that hospital administration and other staff should be able to lean back and put up their feet for a while. Right? Wrong.  

The Ever-Increasing Nurse Shortage

The reality is that the COVID-19 pandemic has only accentuated an already existing problem: a nursing shortage. The US has experienced nursing shortages periodically since the early 1900s, but the nursing shortage announced in 2012 has been the worst yet and is expected to continue until 2030. Some states, such as California, Nevada, Texas, and South Carolina, have less than ten registered nurses (RNs) per 1000 residents, and only five states have 16 RNs or more per 1000 residents: Vermont, Massachusetts, Delaware, North Dakota, and Wyoming. In many states, there simply are not enough nurses to satisfy demand, and this difference between supply and demand is just going to get worse in many states. By 2030, California is estimated to have a deficit of 44,500 nurses, Texas a deficit of 15,900 nurses, New Jersey a deficit of 11,400 nurses, and this is just the beginning of the list. The total number of new nurses that will be needed by 2030 to cover demand is 1.2 million. 

The nursing shortage can be explained by many factors. An aging population is at the forefront of the contributing factors. The number of people aged 65 or older has grown from 41 million people in 2011 to 71 million in 2019; this constitutes an increase of a whopping 73%. This phenomenon is relevant to the nursing shortage for two reasons: first, the 65-and-over demographic requires more healthcare services than the younger population, which means that the current US population requires more healthcare services than it did ten years ago; second, many of these people aged 65 and over are nurses themselves and are therefore retired or close to retiring, which explains the need for an influx of new nurses. In fact, a 2015 study found that between then and 2030 one million nurses would retire. This should come as no surprise considering that almost half of all RNs are currently over 50 years old. 

Another factor that is contributing to the nursing shortage is nurse burnout – something the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly accentuated. Budget tightening has led many healthcare facilities to cut staffing, which in turn has led to nurses working overtime and being stretched too thin, caring for more patients than they should at any given time. Add to this the stress of making urgent life-altering decisions – often having to decide which critical patient to attend to first – and the life of a nurse for many has become too much to bear.  

The Present Crisis

The nurse shortage explains why hospitals currently have a surplus of beds that can’t actually be filled. Hospitals simply cannot function without enough nurses. Of course, doctors are important, but nurses are undeniably the driving force behind any healthcare facility. It is certainly a complex matter, but there is no way around the fact that both policymakers and hospital administrators are going to need to find solutions to the nurse crisis – and find them fast. Time stands still for no one: the US population continues aging; hordes of nurses continue retiring, and the remaining nurses are being subjected to increasingly unbearable working conditions.If you are a nurse still in the workforce but wanting to escape your present work conditions, consider working per diem, in other words picking up as many shifts as you want when you want – finally working on your terms. Browse the Nursa™ app for per diem jobs today.

Miranda Kay, RN
Blog published on:
March 7, 2022

Miranda is a Registered Nurse, Medical Fact Checker, and Publishing Editor at Nursa. Her work has been featured in publications including the American Nurses Association (ANA), Healthcare IT Outcomes, International Living, and more.

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