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Washington hospitals face nursing shortage as pandemic causes burnout among staff

Nurses statewide face long hours and heavy personal risks. Now some hospitals are finding it hard to fill nursing position vacancies.

SEATTLE — As the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations remains high, the number of nurses is moving in the opposite direction. Hospitals say staffing shortages are having an impact.

COVID-19's impact on nurses was a focus during Friday's state Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee meeting. Two nurses spoke candidly, telling lawmakers how the ongoing pandemic is leading to burnout and causing some nurses to leave their jobs.

Like so many places, Central Washington is seeing nurses working overtime to keep up with the demand the virus is creating.

"The number of COVID patients we have in the intensive care unit actually remains very high," said Dr. Jason Lake, the Chief Medical Officer at Confluence Health in Wenatchee.

Lake says what's making matters worse is they have 85 open positions throughout their health system, mostly for inpatient nurses. Due to staffing shortages, there have been occasions when the hospital has had to divert COVID patients to other hospitals in Western or Eastern Washington.

In order to deal with the deficit, nurses — already working 12-hour shifts — have been asked if they can do more.

"The more short we are, the more overtime shifts they're working, and the more stress it places on them," Lake said.

Danielle O'Toole, a registered nurse in Pierce County, also described the physical, mental and emotional stress.

"We have all become so exhausted working shift after shift with no breaks, caring for more patients than is safe with less support staff... that nurses stopped coming in for extra shifts because we were trying to preserve our own health and mental well being," O'Toole told lawmakers at the hearing.

Paul Fuller, a registered nurse in Chelan County, told lawmakers about nurses quitting.

"It has burned out a ton of our nurses. In a smaller hospital like ours, we have lost 12 nurses since the beginning of this pandemic," Fuller said.

The nurses told lawmakers that they want worker protections, like rapid COVID tests for nurses. And if they are exposed to the virus, they don't want to use their paid time off to quarantine.

Jayson Dick, with the Washington State Nurses Association, said that increased pay could help address some of the issues.

"Another thing that we drive for is we need to incentivize the nurses to pick up the additional shifts in recognition of the heroic efforts that they're making," Dick said.  

Lake at Confluence Health said that's been a consideration. Lake added that Confluence Health provides counseling services to its staff, including nurses, if they need that during the ongoing crisis.

"We have talked about incentives both financial and non-financial incentives, really to show them how much we appreciate them and, and to try to get them through this crisis," he said. "We really do depend on the care that they deliver."