‘We’re stretched pretty thin right now’: Hospitals experience staffing issues

File photo of lone nurse at nursing station
File photo of lone nurse at nursing station(Staff)
Published: Oct. 16, 2020 at 7:31 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - While there are beds available in the big hospitals right now, they don’t mean anything if there’s not enough staff to help the patients in them. According to multiple hospitals and nursing associations, more health care workers are needed in Alaska.

While case counts continue to rise, the limited staff situation is amplified by the coming winter. During the season, hospital leaders confirm the workload and patient intake always go up for a number of reasons.

According to the Alaska Nurses Association, there are about 15,000 people with Alaska nursing licenses. However, Chair of the Labor Program Donna Phillips said that they send out a monthly publication to every nurse in the state that has an Alaska address. She said they only send out about 9,500 a month.

Of course, the combination of the busy season, being short-handed and the coronavirus pandemic has the health care system concerned for the coming weeks.

At Providence Medical Center, for example, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Bernstein said they have had days since the pandemic started where they’ve had rooms with beds available but not enough nurses to take care of the patients who would be occupying them.

Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Home Association CEO Jared Kosin said it’s always hard to recruit nurses and other health care workers to come up here for permanent positions.

“As we all know, in Alaska, if you’re not from here or you’ve not lived here, you don’t know if you want to stay here,” he said.

Kosin said that’s especially a problem right now, both because of the pandemic and because it’s almost winter.

The winter makes it difficult because Kosin said getting recruits to come up to Alaska when it’s cold and dark is a hard sell.

The pandemic makes it difficult because there’s such a high demand for health care workers and traveling health care workers throughout the entire country.

“In Alaska, we all love the winter here of course," Kosin said, "but people that aren’t from here or who haven’t lived here may not. So it’s hard to attract people up here in the middle of the winter, during a pandemic, when frankly they can go anywhere in the Lower 48.”

Bernstein said they “tend to depend” on traveling nurses and physicians throughout the year, but especially during the winter. In a statement from Providence, spokespeople said they can afford them, but again, there’s just a lot of competition.

Even if they decided to come here as opposed to somewhere in the Lower 48, Bernstein said current state travel restrictions slow down how fast they can get to work. Additionally, if any health care worker gets sick — with or without COVID-19 — they have to take time to isolate before they can get back to work.

With no vaccine yet, Kosin, Bernstein and other health care leaders reminded that the best thing that can be done to keep the system from being overwhelmed is for individuals to practice mitigation techniques, masks, hand-washing, social distancing and everything else that’s been advised for months.

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