Over the last 18 months, many nurses have been giving their all treating COVID-19 patients, leaving them burnt out and leaving the health care industry in droves -- their exit exacerbating a nationwide staffing shortage health experts fear will grow worse as new COVID-19 variants emerge.
“We’re overwhelmed here at work and it’s very, very frustrating,” said Sharp Memorial Hospital acute care nurse Steven Navarro.
Navarro has spent the last two of his eight-year nursing career treating COVID-19 patients and he told NBC 7 this new wave of the pandemic feels like “round two” of a fight he just wishes would end.
“It's preventable. We have the COVID vaccine. We have masks that we aren't wearing,” he said. “It's preventable and it's putting a burden on us.”
He said the burden put on nurses in hospitals is so big, they’re walking off the job in droves – some retiring early or changing careers altogether.
“These poor people are working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, it is exhausting work,” said San Diego State University marketing professor Miro Copic. “If you're a nurse in a doctor's office and people are just coming in for checkups, there's a rhythm there, but when you're in hospitals, it can wear on you. You have to really be committed to the cause as a person.”
“It's a very hard job…you have to like deal with a lot,” Navarro said. “I've had a few friends that began the education route so they can be professors, so that they could work behind the scenes, and not right at the patient’s bedside.”
Navarro said there was already a shortage before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has only made it worse.
“A lot of the nurses that worked for the first few waves, they are burnt out and we have a lot of them leaving, so now we are met at a point where we have a nursing shortage and now we have a surge going on,” Navarro said, adding his wife and one-year-old child are what give him the strength to continue in his career.
And having fewer nurses as cases surge can have serious consequences.
“When you have a non-COVID patient coming in, they’ve had their COVID vaccines. They come into the hospital and they can feel how overwhelmed we are,” he said. “We may not be able to attend to them as fast as we would like to because we're also working with COVID patients, which could have been preventable.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. will need another 1.1 million nurses by 2022 to handle the current shortage.
Hospitals across the country are now competing to hire new nurses, with some even offering incentives like signing bonuses of up to $10,000.