AUSTIN (KXAN) — One day after Gov. Greg Abbott’s request for increased out-of-state healthcare personnel to assist with the current swell of COVID-19 cases, travel nurses and agencies alike have called the situation “dire” and unlike any waves previously seen in the past 18 months.
“I think this is, at this point, the worst that we’ve seen it in Texas,” said Sophia Morris, vice president of account management for the travel nursing agency Aya Healthcare.
There are more than 6,500 out-of-state personnel needed within Texas to assist with surging case numbers and hospitalizations, Morris said. Of those 6,500 positions, more than half of them are designated “crisis needs.”
“We’ve reached out to the medical staffing agencies we used previously to start identifying medical surge staff. There is a still a need for funding to support that effort and ensure medical professionals can be sent to the health care facilities that need them,” said Chris Van Deusen, director of media relations for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “As a reminder, cities and counties have more than $10 billion in federal funds that can be used for this purpose immediately.”
Texas isn’t alone in its requests for travel nursing assistance. States such as Florida and Louisiana, also embattled with the growing number of COVID-19 delta variant cases, have also made calls for assistance. Nationally, more than 47,000 travel nursing positions have emerged.
Currently, Aya Healthcare has sent 1,160 traveling healthcare workers on assignments within Texas, with an additional 200 personnel expected to deploy to the state in the coming weeks. However, Morris said this wave is unlike any other in its intensity, transmission rates and the widespread availability of vaccines already in place.
While the delta variant is a heavy contributor to rising care requests, it’s not the only culprit. Eighteen months into the coronavirus pandemic, Morris said healthcare workers are burnt out, with some having left the industry entirely as cases continued to swell.
“Certainly the delta variant is having a big impact in that, particularly in those southern states, but also just due to vacancies across hospital organizations as well,” she said. “All kinds of different various reasons, right? Nurse burn out, nurses leaving the bedside and pursuing other jobs and what not. So it’s just all kind of hitting at once and then combined with this, this new wave, it’s pretty dire right now out there.”
Patricia Walters-Fischer previously worked as an intensive care and emergency room nurse throughout Texas for 10 years, before earning a journalism degree and switching to medical writing. Now based in San Antonio, she said she had concerns rejoining the healthcare field as a nurse a few months ago.
Now with the latest COVID-19 wave, she said the horror stories she hears from current nurses have prevented her from returning to the field.
“It’s just this constant game of Tetris, if you will. I’m trying to make sure people are getting the care they need right now, and it’s frustrating because as an ER nurse, forever we’ve had the hold my beer crowd, right?” she said. “And that’s never gonna change. But it’s just the sheer volume of that mindset right now, and people are tired; they’re exhausted. And it’s to the point of, ‘why do I care anymore?'”
Cindy Zolnierek, chief executive officer of the Texas Nurses Association, said the organization is pleased with the governor’s calls for increased staffing assistance. However, the requests come as resources are becoming more and more stretched thin throughout the state, Zolnierek said.
Currently, there are only two available intensive care unit beds available in the 11-county Central Texas region. ICU beds can refer to the number of physical beds a hospital has as well as the necessary levels of staffing needed to ensure adequate coverage for ICU patients.
Those beds are not strictly allocated to COVID-19 patients, but also to victims of car crashes, heart attacks and strokes, fires or other traumatic events that require heightened specialized care.
The request is necessary, Zolnierek said, but rallying nurses and healthcare workers for this wave has proven all the more challenging, as mitigation measures like vaccines and masks are available but are not being taken advantage of by the entire population.
“The fact that it’s preventable, that this wave was preventable, because we have a vaccine that’s very effective? And 97% of the people with COVID that are in the hospital are unvaccinated. That’s very disheartening,” she said. “When we’re called to rally, we show up, but the expectation is everybody’s doing their part. The public’s part right now is to get vaccinated, so that you avoid the need for hospitalization, so that we do have beds for everyone that needs one.”
Teresa Jane Jimenez is a Pflugerville-based nurse who has worked as a traveling healthcare worker since 2015. She assisted in a postpartum unit in New York City in February and March 2020, as COVID-19 rippled through the city and resulted in mass casualties in a substantially shorter period of time.
It was one thing, traveling on assignment to cover COVID-19 as there was limited information available. Now, with plentiful resources out there, the fatigue has reached unprecedented levels, Jimenez said.
In Texas, she said the lack of local mandates on masking and vaccinations has posed heightened challenges for nurses trying to care for large numbers of patients, as well as the mental toll of caring for even younger patients than waves previous.
“I just am so tired of the politics of it all,” she said. “This is real people dying, and anyone who doesn’t see that is blind.”
When she looks back on her time working in the Bronx, she said she sees some similarities to the devastation overloading hospitals then and what’s currently ongoing in Texas hospitals. The difference, however, lies in the mentality of the masses to take protective measures for the benefit of others.
With school districts set to resume in Texas in the coming days and weeks and no end to this fourth wave in sight, she said she fears Texas has reached, and surpassed, its healthcare capacity.
“It’s a matter of life and death — and not just for the person wearing or not wearing a mask or not getting vaccinated,” she said, later adding: “Why are people willing to die when there’s a way not to?”