Swamped US hospitals scramble for pandemic help

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Covid-stretched US hospitals are trying to lure nurses and doctors out of retirement, recruiting students and new graduates yet to earn their licenses while offering large salaries in a desperate bid to ease staffing shortages.

With the virus surging from coast to coast, the number of patients in hospital with the virus has more than doubled over the past month to a record high of nearly 100,000, pushing medical centres and health care workers to breaking point.

Nurses are increasingly burned out and falling ill on the job, and the stress on the nation’s medical system prompted a dire warning from the head of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they are going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation,” Dr Robert Redfield said.

Governors in hard-hit states like Wisconsin and Nebraska are making it easier for retired nurses to come back, including by waiving licensing requirements and fees.

This is still a tough sell for older nurses, who would be in more danger than younger colleagues if they contracted the virus, leading some in the former category to take jobs with no direct patient contact.

Iowa is allowing temporary, emergency licences for new nurses who have met the state’s educational requirements but have not yet taken the state licencing exam. Some Minnesota hospitals are offering winter internships to nursing students to boost their staffs. The internships are typically offered in the summer but were cancelled this year because of Covid-19.

The University of Iowa’s College of Nursing is also trying to move graduates into the workforce quickly. It worked to fast-track students’ transcripts to the Iowa Board of Nursing so they could get licenced sooner upon graduating, said Anita Nicholson, associate dean for undergraduate programs.

Ms Nicholson said the college also scheduled senior internships earlier than normal and created a program that allows students to gain hospital experience under a nurse’s supervision. Those students are not caring for coronavirus patients, but their work frees up nurses to do so, Ms Nicholson said.

Registered nurse Virginia Petersen works on a computer while assisting a Covid-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Centre in Mission Hills, Los Angeles

Aspirus Health Care in Wausau, Wisconsin, is offering signing bonuses of up to 15,000 dollars (£11,200) for nurses with a year of experience.

Hospitals also are turning to nurses who travel from state to state. But that is expensive, because hospitals around the country are competing for them, driving salaries as high as 6,200 (£4,636) per week, according to postings for travel nursing jobs.

The outbreak in the US is blamed for more than 270,000 deaths and 13.8 million confirmed infections.

New cases are running at more than 160,000 a day on average, and deaths are up to more than 1,500 a day, a level seen back in May, during the crisis in the New York City area. Several states reported huge numbers of new cases on Wednesday, including a combined 40,000 in California, Illinois and Florida alone.

States are recording record-breaking surges in deaths, including Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky in the middle of the country. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said the virus is “spreading like wildfire”.

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