Nurse fees soar as US hospitals staff up for Covid-19 surge

US hospitals are paying thousands of dollars extra a week to temporary nurses as they struggle to cope with a record-breaking surge of Covid-19 patients. 

Pay for travelling intensive care nurses has soared by 80 to 90 per cent in just the last month, according to NurseFly, a platform for hiring healthcare professionals. Demand is outstripping supply as the latest wave of cases has put over 100,000 Americans in hospital, the highest since the start of the pandemic, and led states to warn that their healthcare systems are facing unprecedented strain.

While healthcare providers have found ways to add beds and secure supplies for patients, it is far more difficult to quickly hire staff to take care of them. Unlike in the first surge, when workers flew into the hardest hit areas around New York, there is now competition from hotspots across the country. 

Michael Fazio, chief executive of Prime Staffing, a New York-based nursing agency, said he had thousands of openings back in March and April — now, there are more than 10,000 across units such as intensive care and the emergency department. 

Nurses at the UMass Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts © Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty

“It’s only December and we have this kind of volume. We didn’t even get to the heart of the winter yet,” he said. 

He said some of his nurses were now being paid between $8,000 and $9,000 a week — more than four times their usual pay. To incentivise staff, he adds free housing, transportation, and sometimes reimbursement for continuing education. Earlier in the year, he paid for a psychotherapist for the nurses he employs to help treat any post-traumatic stress. 

Rates vary by significantly by region. Maryland has seen the most rapid increase in pay — up 97 per cent month-on-month to up to $6,624 a week according to NurseFly, followed by Missouri, up 94 per cent to $7,149, and Idaho, rising 86 per cent to $5,918. 

“Major health systems in all 50 states are scrambling to figure out how to cope with the surge in cases to all-time highs,” said Parth Bhakta, chief executive of NurseFly. “We’re seeing the situation significantly more dire than what it was in April.” 

He added that providers were also trying to lure more permanent staff, with sign on bonuses and better benefits. 

Some healthcare workers are quitting their permanent jobs to benefit from the travelling rates, according to Andy Brailo, chief customer officer at Premier, a group that helps more than 4,000 US hospitals buy supplies and services. He said some hospitals were trying to cope with employee attrition rates of as much as 30 per cent and were increasing pay to retain existing staff. 

But poorer hospitals are unlikely to be able to hire staff at these high rates, and advocates are pushing for more government funding. 

“A large multi-state [provider], they absolutely have more levers to pull, to be able to accommodate for these higher rates. But if you think about a smaller regional hospital . . . it does become an affordability question,” Mr Brailo said. 

Also complicating the picture is the pain some staff are struggling with after caring for wave after wave of Covid-19 patients. Nancy Foster, vice-president at the American Hospital Association, said staff across the country are “mentally and physically exhausted”. 

“Our staff are used to seeing people with serious illness or injury die in the hospital every day — but not in the numbers that they are right now,” she said.

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