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Facing shortages: Alaska pursues plans to recruit more nurses and other health care workers

Published: Dec. 20, 2021 at 4:06 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The state of Alaska, working in partnership with the state hospitals association, is pursuing plans to recruit more nurses and other health care workers across the state.

Heidi Hedberg, director of the Division of Public Health, says the state has short-and long-term strategies. One of the short-term strategies is extending contracts for out-of-state health care workers to help fill gaps until the end of January.

Hundreds of nurses, certified nursing assistants and respiratory therapists were hired on an emergency basis in the fall to help Alaska’s beleaguered hospital system cope with the delta variant surge.

Extending those contracts for around 450 health care workers will help their Alaskan colleagues have a break after fighting the COVID-19 pandemic for over 18 months, Hedberg said.

Dr. Bob Onders, administrator at the Alaska Native Medical Center, said the hospital has seen its COVID-19 hospitalizations drop in the past few months, but it’s still very busy.

“A lot of routine care had been delayed,” he added. “We were unable to accommodate a lot of same-day admission surgeries that could be delayed.”

Although the hospital has not received a large volume of out-of-state health care workers, they have helped, particularly in specialist fields like critical care and in the emergency department.

“Really, what it has helped us do is accommodate more patients,” Onders said.

One of the longer-term strategies the state is pursuing is graduating more nurses. Alaska had faced a nursing shortage before the pandemic and COVID-19 has exacerbated it.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration announced on Friday that it is awarding the University of Alaska Anchorage College of Health $2.1 million in federal COVID-19 relief to hire more faculty members.

“We lead the nation in nursing shortages and the pandemic, of course, has amplified the need for more nurses,” said Kendra Sticka, associate dean of Clinical Health Sciences. “There’s also a huge nursing faculty shortage.”

A shortage of faculty means UAA has to turn away Alaskan students who want to study nursing. Sticka says the college gets around two to three times as many applicants as it is able to teach.

Around 265 Alaskan undergraduate students graduate each year, ready to sit their nursing exams, she added. But there remains a big workforce gap. Sticka says there are around 240 additional nursing positions that are going unfilled each year across Alaska.

Small increases in teaching capacity are possible in the next year or two, she said, but the bigger increases are expected within five years.

Another longer-term strategy is hiring more certified nursing assistants.

Jeannie Monk, senior vice president at the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, explained those are critical, entry-level caregiver positions. She said the COVID-19 pandemic caused recruitment problems because potential staff were unable to train in facilities that had shut down to visitors.

“We ended up with a shortage and a backlog of need,” she said.

Now, the association is playing catch up. It has launched an initiative to recruit and retain hundreds more CNAs.

Some facilities are offering signing bonuses while others have offered checks as a reward for people who stay on. The goal of all these programs is to bolster Alaska’s health care workforce, which the pandemic has shown needs help to be more resilient.

“We need to start it now if we’re going to make a difference down the road,” Hedberg said.

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