LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When thinking of the nursing shortage, we instantly think of hospitals.
In Kentucky, that only accounts for about half of the nurses. The rest are in schools, clinics, public health, and more.
According to the Kentucky Nurses Association, the shortage existed years ago but has only worsened during the pandemic.
The causes for this shortage could range from exhaustion to lack of influence or control, which staffing agencies can provide, at a price.
“We are saving lives. If we are afraid that we are going to hurt someone or not be able to help them, then that leaves us feeling absolutely powerless,” Samantha Heavrin said.
Heavrin credits high patient loads and long hours for her decision to leave Louisville and become a traveling nurse through Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, years before the pandemic began.
“Nurses are leaving in droves and the alternative is to work locums,” she said.
Locum Tenen is Latin for “placeholder” and these locum or travel nurses fill a crucial need during the pandemic. As time goes on, prices go up.
The American Hospital Association, American Health Care Association, and American Center for Assisted living sent a letter to the White House Coronavirus Team claiming nursing staffing agencies are exploiting the shortage, charging two to three times pre-pandemic rates, and keeping large portions of the profit.
“If there were not travel nurses or agency nurses, we wouldn’t have enough nurses to take care of the patients,” Delanor Mason said.
Mason, the CEO of the Kentucky Nurses Association, said these increased prices are only a symptom of a larger problem.
“There was a nursing shortage long before the pandemic hit, but the pandemic has really ripped off the bandage."
A survey they released in October of 2021 found 25% of Kentucky nurses were likely to leave their job in the next three months. Twenty-six percent cited physical exhaustion as a reason for the shortage.
Mason says that larger issue can be solved by hiring additional support staff, bringing back retired nurses, and treating existing nurses with more respect.
"We're looking back and thinking, what are we doing this for? We are being taken advantage of," Heavrin said.
Until then, Heavrin will continue to travel the Ohio Valley.