AAIHR in the Cincinnati Enquirer: To beat COVID-19, Ohio needs more nurses—STAT
By Bill DeVille, AAIHR Board Member
The availability of nurses across Ohio has never been more urgent.
Even before the novel coronavirus registered on public health officials’ radar late last year, many of Ohio’s rural communities were dangerously low on nurses. Now, as these underserved health systems begin to buckle under the unprecedented weight of this once-in-a-century contagion, our too-few health care workers have started dying – and at the moment we need them most desperately.
On Tuesday, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton said two health workers, including one nurse, had died as a result of exposure to the virus.
Before this is over, many more nurses will tragically lose their lives, too. At minimum, the anecdotal evidence from countries whose epidemic curves have since tapered suggests that as much as 10% of health care workers will become infected and require isolation from their patients.
Just consider the numbers: if some communities lacked the requisite levels of health care workers to treat common or chronic illness, what happens when those health systems are pushed to the brink with historic levels of patients needing emergency care for the coronavirus? And what happens if 10% of the state’s caregivers are forced off the frontlines because they’ve become infected themselves? You don’t need to a crystal ball to see that’s a lethal combination.
Health care workers fighting to contain the state’s coronavirus outbreak were outmanned and outgunned long before this disease had penetrated our borders. If Buckeyes stand any hope of bringing this epidemic to heel, we need government and private industry working together to get more nurses and personal protective equipment into our hospitals.
Today, there are as many as 15,000 qualified international nurses who have passed background checks and U.S. licensure and English language proficiency exams but cannot obtain their green card because of a complicated, bureaucratic algorithm that has frozen all employment-based visas.
That’s 15,000 trained nurses that could be in the United States – including, crucially, our backyard – to help us beat coronavirus. Unfortunately, because of this visa retrogression, those are 15,000 nurses who won’t treat American patients anytime soon.
Employment-based immigration is complicated. For high-skilled professionals like nurses, it’s downright labyrinthian.
Each year, Congress authorizes visas for numerically limited categories like those that apply to foreign nurses. Once authorized, it’s the job of the White House to issue these visas to eligible applicants. But in 72 of the previous 98 years, fewer visas have been granted by successive administrations than were made available by Congress. Added together, one think tank estimates there are as many as 4.5 million authorized but unused visas gathering dust under some Washington bureaucrat’s desk.
Concerned that the United States’ decades-long nursing shortage was impairing its ability to treat those affected by the global war on terror, Congress passed legislation in 2005 to recapture 50,000 of this unused cache of green cards for qualified foreign nurses.
The initiative made a dent, if temporary, in the country’s huge clinician deficit. But a confluence of workplace factors, including a graying labor force and explosive new demands for care that predated the coronavirus epidemic, have produced a record new nurse shortage across America’s rural communities, including here in Ohio.
With as many as 1-in-8 nursing jobs projected to go unfilled this year, we desperately need more nurses, and the proven, fastest way is to recruit from abroad.
Bill DeVille has been working to address America’s health care staffing crisis for more than 35 years. He serves as chief executive of Ohio-based Health Carousel and as a board member of the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment.