'People are running on fumes:' Washington faces nursing shortage among record-high COVID hospitalizations

Intensive Care Units around Washington state are fuller with COVID-19 patients than ever before.

"I think everyone is feeling the high stress and the devastation, it is palpable within the hospital," says RN Chelsey Roos, who works in the ICU at St. Joe’s in Tacoma.

Roos, says she and other nurses never thought it would get this much worse, especially with a vaccine available.

"You get into your car after work and you just want to cry."

"Not only do we have roughly 50% more cases than we had during the December surge, but we're caring for all of those patients with fewer staff, because it's been so challenging for particularly our nurses, that people are choosing to leave healthcare because of how stressful it’s been," says Dr. Steven Mitchell, the medical director of Harborview Medical Center's Emergency Room.

It’s a perfect storm, the stress of the job causing many to leave-which then leaves the remaining nurses with an even heavier workload.

"It burns people out, its burning people out so easily, we can’t seem to keep enough nurses working or wanting to work in acute care or a hospital, it's just becoming too much and I think people are wanting to reprioritize things in their lives," says Roos. 

The Washington center for nursing says a recent survey of about 500 local nurses revealed 42% of them are considering or have made plans to leave. National data suggests the number is even higher.

"The American association of critical care recently pulled 6,000 acute and critical care nurses and over 66% responded saying they are considering leaving the profession due to the last 18 months. That could cripple health care," says Roos. 

The toll the pandemic is having on nurses can be hard to put into words. "The more death that we see the more difficult it becomes to separate from your work."

Roos says when she was in school, she never imagined a world where patients could not be with loved ones and that she would often have to try to fill that void.

"Some of the last words they’re going to hear is I’m right here, you’re going to be okay, I’m going to take really good care of you, and no matter how much care you give, sometimes it’s not enough."

This week Governor Inslee and our state secretary of health requested federal assistance to help fill gaps in hospital staffing. But state health officials say this is a nationwide issue, so it might be difficult to get the help our hospitals desperately need. Right now UW Medicine says they have 300 vacant nursing positions. Many other local hospitals said they didn’t have data readily available, but confirmed nurses leaving in large numbers has been an issue. Our state department of health is asking licensed healthcare practitioners and retired medical professionals to consider volunteering to help support the hospital surge. If you’d like to help you can get more information here.

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