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Nursing vacancies in Maryland have risen 50% since August, officials say

“I understand, as our numbers are coming down, that maybe we don’t want to keep the emergency status going. But we’re still in a staffing crisis,” LifeBridge Health’s Leslie Simmons said. Submitted Photo.

Although the omicron surge is beginning to wane in Maryland, nursing shortages are still a massive concern for hospitals, with the number of nursing vacancies rising to 3,900 across the state.  

The Maryland Hospital Association, which advocates for the interests of the state’s hospitals, reported that that number is a 50% increase from the shortages being faced late last August. The organization is calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to extend the current state of emergency, which is set to run out on Friday, Feb. 4, in order to continue measures that allow hospitals the flexibility to hire out-of-state nurses, nurses with inactive licenses and nursing graduates to supplement their staffs. 

MHA’s president and CEO, Bob Atlas, said that, in lieu of an extension to the state of emergency, the governor could also add a 45-day “grace period” to the end of the current public health emergency, like he did when the pandemic’s initial state of emergency ended on June 30.

Like extending the state of emergency, this grace period would allow hospitals to maintain those staffing flexibilities, bridging the gap between the end of the state of emergency and the anticipated passage of the “Health Care Heroes Act,” emergency legislation that Hogan introduced last month in hopes of strengthening health care work forces. The bill would expedite licenses for retired healthcare practitioners, practitioners licensed in other states and nursing graduates.

Leslie Simmons, chief operating officer and executive vice president for LifeBridge Health, said that the LifeBridge system has greatly benefited from the help of retirees, nursing graduates, nursing assistants and others who have been able to augment the system’s nursing staff over the past month and throughout the pandemic.

“I’m very hopeful that we can have a grace period. I understand, as our numbers are coming down, that maybe we don’t want to keep the emergency status going. But we’re still in a staffing crisis,” said Simmons, who said that MHA’s data reflects the increase in nursing vacancies LifeBridge hospitals have seen since last summer.

When asked if Hogan has any plans to extend the state of emergency, Michael Ricci, a spokesman for the governor, said via email, “the purpose of the state of emergency was to address the potential for COVID hospitalizations to overwhelm the health care system. During the 30-day state of emergency, COVID hospitalizations statewide have dropped by more than half, and are declining at the fastest rate in the country (link Ricci’s). Several hospitals have now come off of crisis standards of care.”  

According to the Maryland state COVID-19 dashboard, hospitalizations in the state peaked at 3,462 on Jan. 11, and have since dropped down to 1,678. Meanwhile, the seven-day average case rate per 100,000 Maryland residents has plummeted from a high of 221 on Jan. 8 to only 38 on Jan. 31. 

“The administration has introduced the Health Care Heroes Act to address ongoing staffing shortages, and we hope and expect the General Assembly will act soon on this emergency legislation. We certainly welcome Mr. Atlas’s help in lobbying to get the measure to the governor’s desk,” Ricci added. 

According to Simmons, there are a number of reasons nurses are leaving their jobs, most of which are consistent with what she has seen throughout the pandemic. Some are leaving to join higher-paying travel nursing agencies, while others, burnt out from the omicron surge, are opting for careers in different fields or outside of hospitals. 

Atlas agreed, saying that the most recent surge was “the straw that broke the camel’s back for some folks.” 

High vacancy rates among nurses seem to be a trend nationwide; job postings are up 45% for nurses and 41% for other clinical staff from January 2020 and, according to the American Hospital Association. 

“What I’m hearing from my colleagues around the country is that it’s about the same everywhere. (There is) some variation from place to place, but between natural attrition as well as the effects of the pandemic, we’re really feeling it everywhere,” Atlas said. 

It is unclear to hospital leaders whether this trend is going to continue even as case counts and hospitalizations continue to decline. Right now, Simmons, said, LifeBridge is focused on planning ahead for a potential next surge by looking into solutions, such as recruiting international nurses, that could help ease the blow if nurses continue to leave their jobs. 

“We’re watching it … daily to try to understand what’s going to be our new norm,” she said.