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Hospital Officials Tell Lawmakers Latest COVID Surge Exacerbates Ongoing Oklahoma Nursing Shortage

Photo via Corian.com

Hospital officials told Oklahoma lawmakers on Tuesday they are struggling with the latest COVID-19 surge because there are not enough nurses to go around, hurting patient care and their bottom lines.

Leaders from Mercy Hospital, Duncan Regional Hospital and OU Health told a pandemic relief funding committee they’ve all had nurses quit because of the strain of the pandemic, and with COVID patients once again maxing out their staffed beds, they have no choice but to pay the going rate for traveling nurses. That rate has jumped from $135 an hour earlier in the year to $165 an hour more recently.

"We just finished our fourth quarter, and for fiscal year 21 that just ended, we posted a $29 million loss. And the biggest driver of that loss was a almost — it was about a 90% increase in our contract labor, all of it either in RNs or respiratory therapists," said OU Health CFO Jim Watson.

"Just to put that in perspective, that is the first loss that OU Health has posted since 1997," University Hospitals Authority and Trust CEO Randy Dowell said.

The renewed strain on hospitals from COVID comes amid a summer of RSV infections that’s outpacing typical winter levels and as patients who avoided the hospital earlier in the pandemic again seek care. Hospitals are out of staffed beds more often than not these days, and they might reject dozens of transfer requests in a day.

Duncan Regional Hospital President and CEO Jay Johnson said they're considering reassigning nurses from other areas to help.

"We'll be making decisions this week on if we should close some clinics to redeploy advanced practice nurses and LPNs that work outside of the hospital. We did this in the winter as well. And, by the way, in August, we had our biggest number of clinic visits in the history of our organization," Johnson said.

Lawmakers have asked whether some of Oklahoma’s American Rescue Plan funding should be spent on initiatives to graduate additional nurses. OU College of Nursing Dean Julie Hoff said the problem with that is only 40% of the state’s nurses have a bachelor’s degree, and there’s no good program for nurses to fast-track their master’s and doctoral degrees.

"You can have people come in here and say, 'Let's start new nursing programs.' That's not going to happen, because you don't have the faculty," Hoff said.

Hoff said OU Health's current nursing vacancy rate is 19%.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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