Oklahoma Nurses Say 'More Work To Be Done' Following Meeting With State Officials About Shortage

Dec 4, 2020

Representatives from Oklahoma nursing groups said Thursday that while a meeting they requested with state officials was a good "first step," the Oklahoma State Department of Health and governor's office gave them few firm assurances that their requests pertaining to staffing shortages would be addressed.

"While members of the Oklahoma Academic - Practice Partnership of Nurses made some important progress in the meeting ... there remains work to be done," said Dr. Julie Hoff, dean of the Fran and Earl Ziegler College of Nursing at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. 

Of the requests made in a Nov. 9 letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt by the Oklahoma Nurses Association and Oklahoma Organization of Nurse Executives, which included a statewide mask mandate, additional resources for academic nursing programs and the use of federal coronavirus relief funds to support the crowdsourcing of nurses, the only step the state would firmly commit to in a Wednesday meeting was the development of a media campaign to attract nurses to Oklahoma, said ONA CEO Jane Nelson.

ONA President Shelly Wells said Oklahoma's nursing shortage predates COVID-19, but that the pandemic has "severely exacerbated" it at a crucial moment.

"Sick and injured people may be turned away from certain facilities if there's not adequate staff to treat them. When nurses are overworked, they may not be able to give proper care, and they do make mistakes. These mistakes can turn into tragic complications for patients, families, and not to mention the severe repercussions for the workplace," Wells said.

Wells noted that states like Texas and Kansas pay nurses significantly more, and states such as Missouri are using federal CARES Act funds to recruit and finance the hiring of new nurses from a limited nationwide pool, a step Oklahoma has not taken.

"My major concern comes, with every state that's doing this, that if we're going to do it, we need to jump on the bandwagon because there's a limited resource of nurses in the nation, and if every state is contracting for 500, 600 -- there's not that many," Wells said. "So we really need to reach some kind of resolution on this soon."

Nelson noted CARES Act funding has to be used or allocated by the end of this month, and as of Thursday the state had not yet committed to a future meeting date. 

The nurses also stressed the importance of a statewide mask mandate, a measure Gov. Kevin Stitt has refused even after the pleas of numerous health care organizations, public health leaders and even the Trump White House.

"As nurses, we believe it is vital that we continue to ask for a statewide mandate. We would not be facing such a significant shortage of nurses if we could mitigate and control the spread of the virus," said Cathy Pierce, chief nurse executive at OU Health, who said state officials did not rule the measure out at their meeting this week but also would not commit to pursuing it.

Kristen Webb, OONE president and vice president/chief nursing officer at Duncan Regional Hospital, said nurses are under significant strain but will continue to do their absolute best.

"Certainly we're in a difficult time, and we need some assistance, and we certainly want to support our nurses and our staff. But the question is, can we sustain another six months if we have to in this pandemic? Of course we can," Webb said. "We will have no other choice, as we've got to take care of our people in our communities, and that's what we're here to do. We will do the best we can with whatever resources are available to us to take care of people who are needing us.

"Certainly we would prefer that the mitigations and the mandates would be put in place to kind of help reduce the spread and maybe make it more manageable for us, but we'll do whatever we have to do to make sure that people get the best care they can at the time that they need us."

At a separate virtual press conference shortly before the nurses' group's on Thursday, state health commissioner Col. Lance Frye said the meeting had gone very well they're "trying to work with them in any that we can from a state level to help them with their need."

"There are limitations on that," Frye said. "As a state agency, for instance, us trying to control the labor market is not something we can do. But as much as we can give them support or help them through this process, we're going to."