Years-long nurse shortage in NC exacerbated by pandemic, officials say

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – North Carolina nurses worry about staffing issues and a strain on resources as COVID-19 tightens its grip on the state.

Health care professionals say a statewide nursing shortage is being made worse during the pandemic. The need for nurses continues to grow while some leave the profession or get sick.

“When this started, I’ll be honest, I thought by May/June we will be through this and that didn’t happen. So what we thought was going to be a sprint, turned into marathon, which then turned into ultra-marathon. It’s emotionally hard because you never know what your day is going to bring,” said Eric Wolak, nursing director for medicine and inpatient oncology at UNC Medical Center.

Wolak said that several times each day, his team assesses staffing needs to makes sure they can safely care for patients coming in with COVID-19. He said they focus on immediate needs and try to plan for future staffing needs to maximize every resource.

As state positivity rates increased over the last month, Wolak said they knew to prepare for an influx of patients about a week later.

“If this unit gets full, how do we manage and where do we put our next set of COVID cases? How do we create processes so that we have a containment zone to care for those patients? So basically, taking what we have now for containment and duplicating it in other units,” he said.

Wolak said that, for the first time ever, his unit has had to hire travel nurses to help with the workload. While he’s comfortable with the current staffing level, he’s worried about what will happen after the holiday season.

“We’re already looking ahead two, three weeks from now at staffing, bed availability, and a workforce that some may not come in because they are sick,” he said.

President of the North Carolina Nurses Association, Dr. Dennis Taylor, said there has been a shortage of nurses in the state for the past 10 to 12 years, which is being made worse by the pandemic.

“Most people are prepared to be asked to work longer hours, more shifts,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of nurses who feel an incredible amount of stress.”

Taylor said a portion of senior nurses in the state retired early because of the pandemic, adding to the shortage.

He said another issue is nurses contracting the virus themselves.

However, Wolak said he doesn’t know of any nurses in his unit who contracted COVID-19 from a patient. Rather, he said they become infected in the community

“I tell people all the time I feel safer at work than I do going to the grocery store,” Wolak said.

Taylor also said he feels more comfortable in the hospital where PPE and masks are worn at all times. He said it’s frustrating to see people disregard COVID-19 safety protocol in public because they are tired of following guidelines, or want to make a political statement.

“I would just hope that the public would listen to us as being the most trusted profession that we follow the science. We’re not going to be suggesting or recommending that people wear masks and social distance if that had not been scientifically proven to lower the spread,” Taylor said.

Wolak understands people are tired of following the guidelines and miss seeing friends and family, especially during the holiday season. However, he’s asking everyone not to let thier guards down.

“There are thousands and thousands of health care professionals that are at work today when they wouldn’t necessarily need to be at work because of this pandemic. Because we are not doing a good job as a community at preventing the spread of this virus,” he said.

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