Some Mississippi hospitals report facing a dire shortage of nursing staff and closing beds, in an already stressed healthcare system statewide.
Despite a decline in COVID-19 cases, the shortage of nursing staff threatens to potentially affect the quality of healthcare available says Susan Russell. She’s Chief Nursing Officer at Singing River Health Systems on the Gulf Coast. Russell says they have almost 300 vacancies and they’ve closed 68 beds within the past two months.
“But the issue is there is only a finite number of RN’s that can work in these hospitals. It’s called acute care nursing and on top of that specialty areas like Intensive Care Unit, CU, emergency room, labor and delivery, it takes another year of training to get these individuals to where they can work in those areas,” Russell said.
Russell says last November they closed 8 ICU beds in Pascagoula. She adds Forrest General announced its closing 75 beds. Russell says there's a shortage of registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nurses aids. She says this time last year they had no contract or agency staff working in the inpatient areas for the health system. Now she says 12 percent of their vacancies are filled by contract workers.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency contracted to bring nurses to the state for 60 days. That contract ended October 31. Russell says "I've been in healthcare for 38 years and I'll tell you the last week is probably the scariest I've ever been through."
In 2018, The Journal of Medical Quality predicted a nationwide nursing shortage between 2016 and 2030 and that it would be more intense in the south and west. During the pandemic more healthcare workers are taking traveling assignments to other states to earn two to three times what they can make in Mississippi.
“There are hospitals throughout the state who have contracted with those same travel companies that have hired our nurses away to bring nurses in,” Kelly said.
Ryan Kelly is with the Mississippi Rural Health Association. He says hospitals can’t afford to sustain the higher costs of traveling nurses. Also Kelly says the vaccine mandate and the COVID-19 pandemic itself have made people reevaluate their careers.
“You’re seeing a lot of nurses, many I’ve spoken to personally that have said I realize how hard it was once I stopped having to go to 12 hours a day or more. I realized how much I’ve been missing and I don’t think that’s going to change,” Kelly said.
Singing River Health Systems joined other Mississippi hospitals in requesting lawmakers use federal COVID-19 relief funds to provide bonuses to retain workers. Chief Nursing Officer Susan Russell says they'd like to offer $10,000 for a one year contract and $20,000 for two years. She says she's seeing signing bonuses much higher, but that amount would help retain some staff.
Mississippi legislative leaders have requested a special session to address medical marijuana legislation and providing federal relief funds to hospitals to retain staff. Governor Tate Reeves has not yet announced if he will schedule a special session.