Hawaii struggles to find long-term solution for nursing shortage

Local News

HONOLULU (KHON2) — A total of 257 people are in Hawaii’s hospitals as of Wednesday, Aug. 11, due to COVID-19. That is a jump of 102 from just Wednesday, Aug. 4.

The uptick came as critical care nurses said they were burned out from overtime shifts and staffing shortages. FEMA is sending in nurses to fill 540 positions.

The state is graduating a fair number of nurses to fill positions, but the expertise and experience required to work in an intensive care unit, especially for COVID-19 patients, has become a roadblock to hiring local nurses. The state has relied on traveling nurses to stop-gap the problem.

“We’re in a nursing shortage, but there are no jobs,” Hawaii Pacific University BSN Chair Dr. Michelle Higgins-Mahe said. “Then there are jobs they’re asking for highly educated high qualified nurses to fill those jobs.”

Hawaii was short on nurses before the pandemic but Higgins says the Baby Boomer generation is getting older and that is causing 3,000,000 nursing retirements nationwide. An older population also requires more care.

“We’re bound for trouble, and we’ve known this for a long time, and we’ve worked well we’ve tried to work really hard at understanding it and then cultivating nurses to fill that those voids. Unfortunately, we just haven’t done a very good job,” Dr. Higgins-Mahe said.

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When COVID-19 struck in 2020, the State spent $14 million of federal CARES Act funds on traveling nurses to help fill staffing shortages.

“This is not a new phenomenon. What’s happening right now, this is something that could have been prevented,” Hawaii Nurses Association (HNA) president Daniel Ross said.

Demand on the profession has reached new heights with the new wave of infections, prompting some to resign due to burnout.

“There are so many factors that have increased the demand of nursing right now so I described it takes longer just to take care of one patient because of the PPP, because of their individual needs and their acuity, or the medications they’re taking inside the hospital,” Hawaii State Center for Nursing director Laura Reichhardt said.

The HNA said nurses in Hawaii make about $55 to $70 an hour. Hawaii has the second-highest average nursing salary in the nation, but with the cost of living factored in, it drops to last.

“You look at the work demands, and you look at the reward. And it’s no wonder you have to offer an incentive to recruit and retain people,” Ross said.

The hope is that more hands-on experience at the educational level can help get graduates qualified for jobs, while Ross said hospitals need to hire more grads and get them experience.

It could take time to remedy either way.

“I think it’ll take us a couple of years to figure out what our new nursing demand is,” Reichhardt said.

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