Health care officials say the national nurse shortage is a major issue in Alaska

Published: Nov. 6, 2020 at 11:06 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - On Oct. 28, a public health advisory was issued in Anchorage. With most of the state’s medical infrastructure existing in Alaska’s largest city, health care officials are once again concerned the rising number of COVID-19 cases could put a strain on medical resources.

During a municipal health conference, Providence Hospital CEO Ella Goss pointed to staffing as her chief concern.

“Staffing is always very difficult for Alaska," Goss said. “Recruiting and retaining high skill level, highly experienced people is always a challenge for us.”

The pandemic has made the competition over nurses even tougher. Nationwide, hospitals and clinics are trying to boost their staff levels enough to keep up with higher patient totals. On Thursday, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink spoke with members of the press about the staffing issue.

“Hospitals have been trying very hard to stay ahead of this in many different ways,” Zink said. “I think a lot of us braced for a big hit to our hospitals early on in the pandemic. It’s hitting much later."

As a result, agencies that recruit nurses for travel work and temporary positions say the demand is incredible. The compensation being offered by health care providers in hopes of enticing qualified nurses into taking their openings are at record rates.

Meg Vernon works for a medical staffing agency. She says the demand from state to state has driven serious competition between those who are trying to bring in outside nurses.

“It is the highest rate that I have seen in 17 years," Vernon said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before."

Often the challenges of bringing in nurses from another area don’t boil down simply to who pays the most. Vernon says licensing issues are also a major hurdle.

“A lot of times, hospitals say we need to see an active license in hand for you to even come and interview,” she said.

Michael Elm works as the business development manager for a company called All Medical Personnel. He says that even if you can find a nurse who’s looking for work, there’s also the issue of whether that person is willing to risk exposure to the virus.

“Alaska is sort of isolated from the rest of the country, and when we try to staff these types of positions, we first try to staff with local nurses," Elm said. "The problem is there is a shortage, naturally... It’s a 50/50, whether a nurse is willing to work in an environment where COVID is present.”

Discussions are ongoing over whether the state legislature will extend the current public health emergency disaster declaration. It’s set to expire later this month and that would put even more pressure on these companies as they try to recruit nurses to come to Alaska.

“The governor of Alaska did declare a public health emergency and along with that, there were certain provisions that did allow for expedited licensure to bring in outside medical professionals," he said.

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