Nurse burnout and short staffing in hospitals is once again in the news. It’s no wonder. Some 800,000 COVID infections are being reported daily. The daily average of hospitalization is 150,000, higher than any other time in the pandemic. Close to 2,000 people are dying every day.
Hospital administrators are wringing their hands, claiming that they are trying to get more staff, but there just aren’t enough nurses to fill the gaps.
But nurses say this is not true.
“Our employers claim there is a ‘nursing shortage,’ and that’s why they must flout optimal isolation times, but we know there are plenty of registered nurses in this country. said Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, president of National Nurses United.
The country’s largest nurse labor union maintains that hospitals are deliberately understaffing units and forcing nurses to work long hours to increase profits. COVID, they say, is not the reason. It’s an excuse to accelerate this process, which puts both patients and staff at risk.
Under-staffing or short-staffing is an intentional practice in which hospital management does not schedule an appropriate number of registered nurses, with the appropriate clinical experience, to safely care for patients in a hospital unit, driven by a desire to increase hospital profits. These profits come at the expense of both patient care as well as worker health and safety, says NNU.
On Jan. 13, this 175,000 member union took to the streets in 12 states and Washington, D.C. to demand safe working conditions, the hiring of more nurses, and that federal legislation be passed that protects nurses and patient safety.
A shortage of good nursing jobs, not a shortage of nurses
There isn’t a shortage of nurses. In November 2021 the National Council of State Boards of Nursing reported that there are more than 4.4 million RNs with active licenses. Yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 3.2 million people who are employed as RNs, with 1.8 million employed in hospitals.
Except for a handful of states, there are enough registered nurses to meet the needs of the country’s patients, according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report on the supply and demand of the nursing workforce from 2014 to 2030. The report even projects that 43 states will have surpluses by 2030.
But there is a shortage of a different kind. There’s a shorage of good, permanent nursing jobs where RNs are fully valued for their work at the bedside through safe patient staffing levels, strong union protections, and safe and healthy workplaces, according to NNU.
“As we enter year three of the deadliest pandemic in our lifetimes, nurses are enraged to see that, for our government and our employers, it’s all about what’s good for business, not what’s good for public health,” said Triunfo-Cortez.
“Our employers claim there is a ‘nursing shortage,’ and that’s why they must flout optimal isolation times, but we know there are plenty of registered nurses in this country. There is only a shortage of nurses willing to work in the unsafe conditions created by hospital employers and this government’s refusal to impose lifesaving standards. So this is a vicious cycle where weakening protections just drives more nurses away from their jobs.”
New York City is a good example. That metropolis is experiencing the largest surge of COVID-19 patients since spring of 2020, when it was the national epicenter and when 20,000 New Yorkers died. ICUs are overflowing, and half the city’s hospitals patients have COVID-19. But NYC hospitals generally have fewer nurses than they did at the start of the pandemic. In hospitals across the city, many nurses describe the stress as they try to care for increasing numbers of very sick patients whose needs they cannot meet.
New York nurses are not alone. In a NNU survey of thousands of registered nurses nationwide from October to December 2021, 83% of those responding said at least half of their shifts were unsafely staffed, and 68% said they have considered leaving their position. RNs say they would stop leaving the profession if hospitals immediately improved working conditions by increasing staffing levels and followed nurses’ advice to grow the pool of available nurses.
Nurses’ day of action January 13
This is why NNU members held protests on Jan. 13. Hospitals, they say, must actively hire permanent staff nurses, properly cross-train current staff nurses so that they are competent to work in other departments, especially critical care, and institute optimal occupational health and safety protocols to protect nurses, other health care workers, and patients.
The nurses also call on the CDC to strengthen isolation guidelines for health care workers and the public, and on OSHA to institute a permanent COVID health care standard without delay.
Supreme Court in split decision on vaccine mandates
On Jan. 13, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a split decision on vaccine mandates. It affirmed the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates for health care workers, but denied a similar mandate for large corporations.
NNU welcomed the court’s decision to uphold a vaccine mandate for all workers in health care facilities. But the nurses’ union condemned the decision to throw out the vaccine mandate for other workplaces as well as the argument that the spread of the infection in unsafe workplaces is not an “occupational hazard in most cases.”
“That twisted logic ignores the disproportionate number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths among tens of thousands of essential workers over the past two years, from infections that have been contracted on the job,” said Triunfo-Cortez.
This court decision denying vaccine mandates in large businesses has also been condemned by the AFL-CIO. Liz Shuler, that labor organization’s president, rightly explained, “We will not beat this pandemic until we stop the spread of the pandemic at work.”
COVID vaccines work
Underlying the Supreme Court decision opposing vaccine mandates for non-health care workers is the anti-vax view that the explosion of Omicron cases even among the vaccinated proves that the COVID-19 vaccine does not work. But how COVID is being experienced in the vaccinated shows just the opposite — that vaccinations are working.
Receiving a vaccination doesn’t mean that recipients are completely free from worry about getting any symptoms of a given illness. As seen with other vaccines, breakthrough cases can happen and are often expected to occur. A vaccine does not stop them. What vaccinations offer is increased safety from severe illness and death. COVID vaccinations prevent a great number of serious illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in the face of breakthrough infections, and do so effectively across different COVID strains.
The numbers back this up. The risk of COVID infection is eight times higher in the unvaccinated than in the vaccinated; the risk of hospitalization or death in the unvaccinated population is 25 times higher, according to the CDC. Those who are vaccinated are likely to experience milder symptoms, while hospitalizations among the vaccinated may be prevented in 70 percent of cases.
This demonstrates the importance of getting the COVID vaccine and mandating the shot at all workplaces for the health of all.