As Nurses Aid New York, Other States Worry They'll Be Short-Staffed Too
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're also reporting on this puzzling situation for the health care system. New York remains in serious need of help treating COVID-19 patients. So it's continued to ask health care workers from other states to come lend a hand. But that means those people are not in their home states as those places work to treat their own cases. We're going to hear from both sides of this story. Fred Mogul, from member station WNYC, begins by taking us to Long Island in New York. And then Emma Hurt, from station WABE, takes us to Georgia.
ASHLEY: I'm Ashley (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, Ashley.
FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: At a training center on Long Island, a half-dozen nurses sit in a classroom spaced apart and wearing masks.
PATRICIA SAVAGE: Some of the respiratory equipment that if you haven't been exposed to it recently, we're just going to do a quick review here, OK?
MOGUL: Nursing instructor Patty Savage (ph) works at Northwell Health, New York state's largest hospital system. She's standing at the front of the room with an upright dummy and an old, out-of-service ventilator.
SAVAGE: Can I hyper-oxygenate this patient?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.
SAVAGE: I can. How would I do that?
MOGUL: Savage says these are seasoned pros. But they still need to learn how things work in Northwell's intensive care units and emergency rooms.
SAVAGE: Some of them are in their profession their whole lives. And they come with a lot of knowledge. And you have to respect that.
MOGUL: New York scrambled to add ventilators and hospital beds and fresh workers to keep the systems running, too. About 90,000 have volunteered to help, including some 25,000 from out of state. Ellen Hanson is an ER nurse in La Crosse, Wis., who's worked around the world, including in Liberia for the Ebola outbreak.
ELLEN HANSON: I'm kind of a little bit familiar with, like, really serious diseases. And everywhere I've traveled internationally, there's been measles. There's been TB. There's been HIV. And there is no protection. Some I'm kind of used to that limited resource settings. So this is kind of like, oh, Africa, but maybe even a little better.
MOGUL: A special staffing agency hired Hanson and the traveling nurses here for short-term assignments. They typically make at least twice their normal wage.
RASHAWN COLLIER: Does it compensate for you risking your life? No. But it does help.
MOGUL: Rashawn Collier is based in Brooklyn. But he's a full-time travelling nurse, mostly in rural New York, but more recently in Queens, where he saw patients dying of COVID every day. That didn't deter him from coming to Long Island.
COLLIER: I feel like this is my calling. And this is where I belong. Every time I'm home, I feel like there's not a patient out there that I can help. There's not a family out there I can support.
MOGUL: About 1,000 staff members in the Northwell Health System have tested positive for COVID. And three have died. Collier says he might follow the pandemic to its next stop, too. After this, he'll see how it goes.
For NPR News, I'm Fred Mogul in New York.
EMMA HURT, BYLINE: And I'm Emma hurt in Atlanta. Rachell Dumas was also at that New York training. She's been an ICU nurse her whole career here in Atlanta. But she decided she's needed most up north right now because she wasn't seeing that many COVID patients in Georgia.
RACHELL DUMAS: You know, I watched the news. And then you see New York. They're really suffering. So I just figured, you know, New York would need my services more than Georgia would.
HURT: Her friends and family text her constantly to check on her. Her first few weeks at a hospital on Long Island have been intense, she says.
DUMAS: It's not until you're face to face with taking care of these people that you realize the magnitude of how sick people are.
HURT: As a high-demand ICU nurse, Dumas is making four times her normal earnings in Atlanta for this two-month stint. But the nurse-to-patient ratio she's working under is sometimes twice what it should be.
SCOTT STEINER: What it's turned into is a bidding war for supplies. And now, we're seeing it for people.
HURT: Scott Steiner is the CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, Ga. Albany, in the southwest part of the state, has one of the highest per capita rates of COVID in the world right now. He says they've already lost critical care travel nurses to better offers in New York.
STEINER: That's just what it has become. And we certainly know and can understand the situation New York is in. But if this continues, I think that's what we're going to see is the highest bidder will get the most resources, whether we're talking about masks or we're talking about people.
HURT: Georgia and the nation, he points out, already had a nursing shortage. This has just exacerbated the competition across the country. The Georgia Nurses Association and the governor's office are trying to come up with ways to prevent nurses from leaving, like student loan forgiveness. A widely cited model predicts the state's peak will hit in just a few days. Rachell Dumas says she wants people to know that no matter where they are or their pay, nurses are working extremely hard right now, often without the equipment or the colleagues they need.
DUMAS: Not t sound not scared, but I feel like it's for a greater good, you know? And I'm very religious. I just feel like God will make sure I'm covered. And if I'm not, then I died in the line of duty.
HURT: When her New York contract ends, Dumas plans to head back to Georgia, but not back to work in a hospital until after a month quarantine.
For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.
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