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Travel nurse demand has shifted, hospitals now face double-edged sword

After a trying year of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and overwhelmed hospitals, travel nurses soon became a key asset to help battle the virus.

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Aside from the impact of COVID-19, a nationwide nurse shortage is only making matters worse.

During the height of the pandemic, hospitals and other health care facilities turned to travel nurses. But over time, that resulted in more than a financial cost.

Justin Vlach calls Mississippi home, but you won’t find him here all 12 months of the year.

"I had been a nurse in the ICU in Oxford, Mississippi, for 15 years, and I decided travel nursing after that," Vlach said.

He decided to pursue travel nursing in 2012, and much like the rest of the world, he would never have imagined a pandemic in 2020.

"Because it was unknown in the beginning about the virus and what could happen, the isolation was the strictest we have ever experienced. And because of that, you're having now, these patients are sick and require so many different types of equipment in the room," Vlach said.

After a trying year of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and overwhelmed hospitals, travel nursing soon became a key asset to help battle the virus.

"So, when hospitals don’t have enough, and they tapped on their full-time people, part-time people, their PRN nurses, and they don’t have anybody to care for their surge in number, then one resource is to travel agency nursing," said LaNelle Weems, director of the Mississippi Center for Quality and Workforce-MS Hospital Association Foundation.

And as travel nursing became a demanding resource to help with the rise in infection and hospitalizations, the demand for money increased, as well.

"The pay is the biggest part," Vlach said. "The pay increased dramatically during COVID because of the shortages that everyone just needed, and yeah, the pay really attracted a lot of people."

"When you get offered $160 an hour for an RN in an ICU setting, or more people are like, 'Well, if I’m working in COVID here, I might as well work in COVID somewhere else and can make big money,'" Weems said.

As a result, many hospitals, long-term care and other health care facilities are left at risk – especially those in rural communities.

Weems said if things do not improve, they have to scale back on hospital beds to accommodate for the nurse staff.

"We struggle with what we’re going to do if we have a bad flu season, or we have a bad COVID season. What are we going to do? and some of our nurse leaders say, 'I don’t even have a plan B right now,'" Weems said. "I think we’re going to have to match our workforce to the number of beds available. And that may mean waiting in the emergency rooms longer, waiting in the doctors' offices longer."