COVID-19 Impact: As nationwide nursing shortage hits California, UCSF nurses demand change

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The pandemic has exacerbated a nationwide nursing shortage with the current COVID surge pushing many nurses to a quitting point.

"We're not rubber bands, you can't keep stretching and stretching us," said Maureen Dugan, a nurse with UCSF's general surgery unit, who spoke with ABC7.

On Tuesday, she and other UCSF nurses with California Nurses Association/National Nurses United held a virtual press conference, demanding the University address staffing issues and patient safety.

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"They say they're hiring nurses, but it's not enough," said Dugan, who later added, "For the inpatient unit where I am, we are lacking support staff and nurses to a very dangerous level."

UCSF issued a statement that says they have added staff throughout the hospital and continue to meet state nursing ratios. UCSF also says they have requested 210 travel nurses and are offering them top rates, but because travel nurses are in such high demand nationwide, it's been hard to fill the requests.

"I think one of the factors that could be affecting UCSF, and I don't know that they should change this, is that UCSF is requiring traveling nurses to be vaccinated. Not every healthcare organization is requiring that," said Joanne Spetz, the director of UCSF's Institute for Health Policy Studies.

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Spetz just published a study on a California-wide nursing shortage, which she found is largely due to retirements.

"Usually in 55 to 64 year old nurses, about 10 or 12% of them report to us that they plan to retire in the next two years, that went up to 26%. So that's a huge difference and I think that's almost entirely COVID-related."

"Nursing has become an increasingly unattractive career. Given the changes at hand with the increasing demands on nurses, the escalating complexity of care, and the lack of support," said Arup Roy-Burman, a USCF pediatric intensive care doctor.

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To help combat health care worker burnout, he founded tech startup - Elemeno Health. He thinks giving nurses tools through technology to succeed and feel safe at work is key to retaining staff.

"It's about how do I support you - the frontline nurse - so that you can be successful, so that you can deliver that best care possible every time."

Roy-Burman and Spetz say re-engaging late-career nurses while creating career paths for new nurses is critical for California's health care system and patients.

You can read UCSF's full statement here:

UCSF Health has been at the forefront of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, working closely with public health officials to meet the needs of our communities, while serving as a leader in setting the standard for protecting workers during COVID-19.
We have placed a priority on ensuring that our frontline care providers, including our nursing staff, have the appropriate personal protective equipment, vaccines, and other resources they need to care for our patients.
Our efforts have ranged from daily symptom screeners for everyone entering our buildings to a Universal Surgical Mask policy at all of our clinical sites. We require eye protection for patient care providers in higher-risk situations and have set up free COVID-19 testing for any employee with symptoms or high-risk exposures. We also have an extensive contact-tracing system to identify additional cases when infections occur and have brought in supplemental nursing staff to maintain safe staffing ratios where needed.

These evidence-based protocols have often exceeded federal standards and have helped us protect our work force during the pandemic.

As the COVID-19 vaccines became available in December, UCSF Health opened vaccinations first to those on the front lines of patient care, including our nurses, patient assistants and other hospital staff with the highest risk of potential exposure during their work. These efforts had an immediate impact in reducing the rates of infection across our clinical teams. As cases begin to rise again due to the Delta variant, we are doubling down on our efforts to protect our staff. This includes requiring all employees and trainees to comply with the UC-systemwide vaccination requirement, with limited exceptions for medical or religious exemptions.

UCSF Health continues to attract the highest caliber of nursing staff, with salaries and benefits for RNs that rank among the best in the nation, and we have aggressively recruited nursing staff throughout the pandemic to help our clinical teams. We have added staff in our ICU, Medical-Surgical Unit, Emergency Department, Obstetrics and Operating Room, and we have continued to meet state nursing ratios, to enable our clinical teams to provide the high quality of care for which UCSF Health is known.
We also have requested 210 travel nursing personnel from our travel nurse agency and are offering these nurses top rates, along with crisis pay. Unfortunately, travel nurses have been in high demand for hospitals nationwide throughout the pandemic and especially during the current surge, making it challenging for agencies to fill those requests.
The demands of the pandemic have challenged hospitals nationwide. At UCSF, we have developed a surge plan to help balance the needs of our surgical patients against the pandemic surge, to ensure that we have the staffing and beds available for those who need them most. These so-called "elective" surgeries include any medically necessary procedures that are not immediately life-threatening and can wait up to two weeks. As a specialty medical center, the elective surgeries we provide are urgent and patients depend upon us to provide this care.

Our nurses have gone above and beyond over the past 18 months to provide top-notch patient care. We are grateful to them for their professionalism and are dedicated to providing the support they need to weather this pandemic.


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