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'Dramatic' Nursing Shortage Adding To COVID Woes For Colorado Hospitals

(CBS4) - Bobby Neeld is a hot commodity right now and he knows it.

"I feel like I can go anywhere in the country", said Neeld, 28, a Denver-based registered nurse.

Bobby Neeld
(credit: CBS)

And he has. He spoke to CBS4 from San Diego, where he is on a temporary assignment through December working at a San Diego area hospital.

He says by becoming a temporary "travel nurse," he can double or quadruple what he can make as a full-time staff nurse at a Denver hospital.

"Mind blowing on how much they are paying us travel nurses compared to full-time employees," said Neeld.

Bobby Neeld
(credit: Bobby Neeld)

CBS4 found that hospitals on Colorado's Front Range facing a surge in COVID patients have found themselves short of nurses in the midst of the pandemic, and are scrambling to hire travel nurses -- and make sure they keep the nurses they have -- by paying healthy incentives to nurses picking up extra shifts.

Stephanie Sullivan, a spokesperson for HealthONE, which operates hospitals in Colorado, told CBS4, "Staffing is largely the crux of any current capacity issues. At HealthONE we are addressing that by offering shift incentives for a variety of roles."

On Oct. 29, Denver Health issued an internal email to employees regarding the surge of COVID-19 patients. The communication, obtained by CBS4, said "We are also taking positive steps to address staffing shortages and quickly fill vacant positions by speeding up the hiring process for nurses and other staff. In the past three months, we have hired 582 staff members, including 129 registered nurses, 95 certified nursing assistants ... we have hired 57 traveling nurses ... who come from around the country to fill open positions in critical and acute care." The email went on to say the hospital was offering incentive pay to current nurses to get them to pick up additional shifts. "With these initiatives, we hope to have enough staff support to continue to provide the best care possible for our community and, hopefully, to avoid mandated on-call shifts for inpatient staff."

(credit: CBS)

Banner Health, which operates hospitals in northern Colorado, said it "is working to secure the necessary staff to respond to the COVID-19 surge." The hospital system said during a typical winter it needs an additional 900 nurses for seasonal patient volume. "We expect that number to double due to COVID-19," said the hospital system. Banner said it too was trying to bring in out-of-state nurses but "We anticipate that this will be very challenging given the national demand as the entire country surges."

Taylor Kirk, a senior recruiter for Aya Healthcare in California, which provides travel nurses to hospitals, said "Needs have increased dramatically, more than I've ever seen. It's a good time to be a nurse." He said when hospitals began filling with COVID patients, the rates hospitals were willing to pay nurses "have gone up pretty aggressively." He said hospitals are now typically paying travel nurses 80% more than normal. He said a handful of hospitals have sweetened the pot even more, by offering "completion bonuses" ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 when "travelers" complete their stints. Kirk said his agency is still able to fill the needs of hospitals, but its taking longer than normal.

Neeld said overall, "They're paying great money for ICU travel nurses. The demand is outnumbering the supply."

CBS4 obtained numerous solicitations for travel nurses:

-Starting this week, ICU nurses willing to work in Sacramento were being offered $4,830 per week for a seven week assignment
-A hospital in Duluth, Mn. was offering ICU nurses $6,340 per week
- Colorado hospitals from Greeley to Denver and Aurora are all offering nurses higher wages and benefits to increase COVID staffing.

Ironically, six to seven months ago, hospitals in Colorado and around the country were furloughing nurses and slashing their hours as hospitals saw their revenues slide. That was mostly due to elective surgeries and non-emergency surgeries being put on hold during the pandemic and patients frightened to go to hospitals due to fear of contracting COVID-19. Now those same hospitals are competing with each other to quickly hire tens of thousands of nurses to staff their facilities.

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