Jan 14, 2022 - COVID

D.C. nurses call on feds to tackle staffing shortages

Illustration of hands in medical gloves holding red picket signs, forming a red cross symbol.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A group of about thirty unionized nurses and labor rights activists gathered yesterday outside the Howard University Hospital, toting signs calling for action to address nationwide staffing shortages — which they say pre-date the pandemic and have since only gotten worse.

Why it matters: Health care workers across the country are burnt out as the pandemic wears on, exacerbating staffing shortages as those workers, including nurses, quit due to overwork and stress.

  • A Morning Consult poll of 1,000 health care workers in Oct. 2021 found 51% said their mental health has gotten worse during the pandemic, up from 46% at the start of 2021.
  • National Nurses United, which represents thousands of registered nurses across the country, surveyed nurses between Oct. and Dec. of last year. 83% said at least half of their shifts were unsafely understaffed and 68% said they’d considered quitting, NNU says.
  • Edward Smith, executive director of the District of Columbia Nurses Association, said that at various hospitals across D.C. there are at least 100 vacancies, but added it’s hard to pin down a specific number on the shortages.

What they’re saying: Howard University Hospital nurse Esmeralda Salgado sees the staffing shortages firsthand. She’s been at the hospital for nearly twenty years and says staffing challenges pre-date the pandemic and have only gotten worse. Salgado, who works on the trauma floor, says she's lately been responsible for between five and eight patients during any given shift.

  • “It’s not safe to have six, seven patients and no help on the floor,” Salgado says. “We are doing the job of two nurses.”

Salgado says the hospital is hiring nurses, but not retaining them as nurses leave for better-paying opportunities, such as travel nursing agencies. In December, DC Health deputy director Patrick Ashley said D.C. is relying on twice the number of traveling nurses as it did pre-pandemic.

  • “It’s too much,” Salgado says of the demands of nursing shifts, adding that nurses are also getting exposed and sickened by COVID-19. She hasn’t seen her daughter or granddaughter since Dec. 25, she says, because of fears of exposing her to COVID-19.
  • “People are tired. They quit or they call out or whatever. It’s very challenging. At the same time we still need to think of patient safety,” Salgado says.

Howard University Hospital did not respond by press time to Axios' request for comment.

The big picture: National Nurses United, which has long pushed for establishing a ratio of nurses to patients, organized the day of action across the U.S., including in D.C. The group supports federal legislation introduced last year to establish these nurse ratios.

The nurses yesterday outside Howard University Hospital also said they supported federal action, as well as the permanent installment of a temporary OSHA emergency standard which sets regulations for health care settings on COVID-19 prevention.

  • The standard expired last month, but OSHA has said it's working on a permanent regulatory fix.

At-Large council member Robert White, who is also running for mayor, and Ward 1 council member Brianne Nadeau attended the day of action, both of them thanking the nurses and expressing support for better working conditions.

Between the lines: On Tuesday, D.C. declared a temporary limited public health emergency, following pleas from the D.C. Hospital Association, which increases staffing flexibility amid the workforce shortage.

Yes, but: Public health emergency designations mean more flexibility for hospitals, including expanding beds and allowing providers whose licenses have expired to work, but might not fully address inadequate staffing.

  • Julian Walker, vice president of communications at the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, where a public health emergency was also declared this month, said staff is needed “on duty and available to tend to patients who may be in hospital beds.”
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