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Travel nurses say the current healthcare system is ‘unsustainable’ as COVID-19 infections surge again. Some say the pay is the only thing keeping them on the frontlines

A team of nurses, none of whom were interviewed in this story, and physicians transfers a patient with COVID-19 into ICU room from the emergency room at CentraCare St. Cloud Hospital in St. Cloud, Minn., on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.

Jenn Ackerman /For The Washington Post via Getty Images

  • Frontline workers have been dealing with wave after wave of COVID-19 cases for the past two years.
  • The pandemic has created a demand for travel nurses as hospitals struggled with staff shortages. 
  • Some travel nurses are considering leaving the profession, calling the system unsustainable. 

Travel nurses have been in high demand as hospitals across the country deal with surge after surge of COVID-19 and struggle with staffing shortages, but some nurses say the current healthcare system is “unsustainable.”

As a means to deal with staff shortages, hospitals are enticing travel nurses with high-paying contracts. In some areas, travel nurses are making more than doctors. 

“The hospital that I’m working in right now was so short staffed and so critically overwhelmed that I am making more money than the surgeons,” Tayler Oakes, a travel nurse, told Insider. 

But Oakes said this system is unsustainable. She told Insider that while she loves to take care of patients, she’s burnt out and the only thing keeping her in her bedside role currently is the pay. 

“I think the money, this is keeping a lot of us in the industry, which is also super concerning cause that’s not sustainable at all,” she said. 

The compensation has pushed some nurses to leave their staff positions to follow the money into travel nurse industry, Taylor Dilick, a travel nurse in South Carolina, told Insider. She said the lack of adequate pay for staff nurses, alongside working conditions, led to “a mass exodus” of staff nurses who took on more lucrative travel positions.

Oakes said some the issues plaguing the industry were ongoing since before the pandemic hit two years ago, but the constant rise of COVID-19 cases has just exacerbated them.

“I don’t ever see myself not being a nurse, but I don’t know how long a body can sustain the work that we do at the bedside for 12 hours a day,” she said. “How long your emotional and mental health can maintain seeing people die all the time from preventable things.

She added: “I think people just don’t understand what healthcare workers see. Like, I mean, imagine seeing people die all day every day and you’re supposed to clock out and go to dinner.”

Nurses previously told Insider that, as officials warn of an uptick of hospitalizations due to the Omicron variant spread across the country, they feel like they’re living in the movie “Groundhog Day.”

While many were optimistic that with the rollout of vaccines last year that cases would decline and the strain on the healthcare system would subside, they have instead found themselves in what feels like a never ending loop.

The pandemic has made many nurses consider leaving the profession. A Trusted Health online survey conducted in March of over 1,000 travel nurses found that 67% said they did not think the healthcare system was prioritizing nurses’ mental health and well-being.

Additionally, out of the 46% of respondents who said they felt less committed to nursing, almost half said they were considering leaving the profession, and 25% said they were looking for a job outside of nursing or planning to retire.

Nikki Motta, another travel nurse, told Insider that she has more work on her plate with less nurses available and more demand for them. While she may only have one to three patients she’s personally taking care of, she said she would often have to help out other nurses who have just graduated or are not specifically trained to treat COVID-19 patients. 

That adds to the mental and physical exhaustion she feels, she said. Motta previously told Insider that she’s considering leaving bedside care because of the stress. 

“I think that healthcare systems need to realize that nurses are valuable and that they’re an integral part of healthcare systems and they wouldn’t run without them,” Motta said.

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