SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – The COVID-19 pandemic is aggravating a shortage of nurses in California that's expected to linger for years.
Nurse Stephen LaBorde of Louisiana has been among the out-of-state medical professionals who have traveled to California to fill in at hospitals in COVID hotspots across the state.
LaBorde says the have been challenges, he almost quit when one hospital failed to supply enough PPE.
"That's was the time when nurses were dying in New York and it was like, we could actually die from this," LaBorde told KPIX 5.
He wasn't the only one worried.
According to a survey by the UCSF Health Workforce Research Center on Long-Term Care, 26% of California nurses between age 55 and 64 said they planned to leave in the next two years. That's double the percentage over years past.
Dr. Joanne Spetz, Director of the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, co-authored the report, based on surveys from last year's summer surge. Spetz said some nurses cite stress and shifting priorities.
"I want to serve, I'm going to help my community through the pandemic, and when this is over, I'm going to spend time with my family. I'm done," she told KPIX 5.
The report forecasts a shortage of more than 40,000 nurses, a 13.6% drop statewide.
"We think this is going to result in persistent shortages for about four to five years," Spetz said.
So as operating rooms open up again, and more patients are returning to hospitals, hospitals are hiring often-more-expensive traveling nurses.
Aya Healthcare reports there are 40,000 traveling nurse jobs open nationwide, a 77% increase over last year.
More than 4,400 of the jobs, about 11%, are in California, the state with the highest demand.
As a traveling nurse working in the intensive care unit, LaBorde faces the most critical COVID cases. "I've never seen so many people die as in this year," he said.
Unlike staff nurses, he can take a break between his three-month assignments.
"You're getting burned out but at least you have a finish line. Oh, like my contract is until May, I just have to make it until May," he explained.
While traveling nurses fill the short-term gap, there's long-term hope in a nationwide jump in nursing school applicants.
At Santa Rosa Junior College, administrator Dr. Katherine Magee expects more interest in its 120 nursing program slots this year since they took no applicants in last year's shutdown.
"If we get 400-500 applications, maybe we'll get 400-600 applications," said Magee.
Students, including Christina Croco, are ready to work. She is scheduled to graduate in the spring with her associate degree in nursing.
"Shortage or not, those of us that have continued on with school, we really have a passion to move forward," Croco said.
And more graduates are trained to avoid the burnout that's led some nurses to bail out.
"The trend in nursing education is towards building resilience," Magee said.
Nurses and educators also hope hospitals will provide incentives to keep nurses on staff and mentor new graduates to help keep their numbers in stable condition.
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