AAIHR in the South Florida Sun Sentinel: Florida is at war with COVID-19. It needs more healthcare soldiers
By Patty Jeffrey, AAIHR Vice Chair
Long before American homes became at once a makeshift schoolhouse, diner, church, and theater, before our hospitals strained under the weight of a global pandemic, and even before our front line healthcare workers started losing their lives to an invisible enemy, many Florida communities were dangerously low on bedside nurses.
The wealthier, densely-populated enclaves of the state were fortunate to have had nominal surpluses of nurses and other specialty clinicians before the outbreak. But now even these once-lucky health systems are telling medical staffing firms like mine that the sudden onset of critically ill patients is crushing them. They can’t keep up, and it’s only going to get worse.
The number of coronavirus cases has increased six percent since Tuesday night. Nearly 16,000 cases were reported statewide on Wednesday night. More than 300 people have died, and more than 2,000 have been hospitalized, according to the latest tally from the Florida Department of Health.
When this is over, public health experts have warned that the disease will likely have stolen more American lives than those lost in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts combined or the first World War.
Both enormous and yet terrifyingly proximate, this crisis has made the availability of nurses and healthcare workers the singular concern for hospital administrators because additional bed capacity doesn’t mean anything unless there’s a caregiver to tend it.
That’s not to say patients will go untreated. However, they may not receive the care they need and deserve. For every ten percent increase in a nurse’s workload, researchers have observed a 7 percent increase in patient mortality.
While the answer seems painfully apparent—Florida, like the rest of the country, must find a way to bolster its medical ranks immediately with qualified caregivers—the solution is quite elusive.
The situation is so dire that we’ve resorted to begging nurses in their golden years to come out of retirement despite their heightened exposure risk. Some states are even trying to fast-track the graduation of inexperienced nursing students.
But the truth is that neither approach will provide the numbers of trained, steady healthcare workers necessary to pummel this contagion.
Instead, we ought to be looking overseas, where upwards of 15,000 qualified nurses have already cleared background checks, U.S. licensure exams, and English proficiency tests but cannot get a green card to emigrate because the federal government has frozen all employment-based immigration.
Each year Congress authorizes a limited number of immigrant visas that the Department of State is supposed to issue. But the issuance of these visas is regulated by a complicated, bureaucratic algorithm to control numerically limited immigration types and places of origin relative to the rest of the world.
Recently, government number crunchers ordered a visa freeze for all employment-based (EB3) immigration, because they believed the cadence was too high. That order, though, came at the worst possible time for American hospitals, who were waiting on those nurses.
In the past, when a visa retrogression limited the ability of hospitals to recruit and hire international nurses, Congress acted to recapture some previously authorized but unused visas. One think tank put the number of unused visas somewhere around 4.5 million.
Florida hospitals are begging me for more nurses — for soldiers in this war on the coronavirus. But I can’t send them the reinforcements they need unless and until Congress once again allows international nurses to come to the country.
Florida is at war, and right now the enemy is winning. The COVID-19 pandemic is the worst public health crisis in a generation. Our state needs all the soldiers we can get.
Patty Jeffrey, a Florida-based expert on the U.S. nursing shortage, is Vice Chair of the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment and serves as Vice President of International Operations for MedPro International, which recruits foreign-educated healthcare professionals.