The nation’s frontline medical workers were running on fumes even before the arrival of Omicron. Successive waves of illness and death have left them exhausted and numb; nearly one in five have left the profession over the past two years. And they are angry — at the patients who refuse to get vaccinated, at the hospital executives who won’t spend the money needed to maintain safe nurse-to-patient ratios, and at the political leaders who call them “health care heroes” while opposing mask and vaccine mandates that might blunt the tsunami of new infections.
The labor shortage has been especially brutal for the small, nonprofit safety-net hospitals like Singing River where millions of Americans seek care. Financially fragile even before the pandemic, they have been unable to match the lofty salaries dangled by travel nurse agencies and large health systems, further accelerating the personnel drain that threatens their ability to provide quality care. Travel nurses can make more than $200 an hour, far more than the $30 earned by most staff nurses in Mississippi.
The financial strain has been exacerbated by the refusal of Mississippi and other southern states to embrace Medicaid expansion.
Kelly Cumbest, 45, a registered nurse who manages patient care in the E.R., said that in recent months he had received only one application for 24 openings in his department. “It’s not just Omicron that worries us,” he said. “What scares us is that we don’t have people to take care of heart attacks, strokes and car accidents, and that’s something the politicians and general public really don’t understand.”