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Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Curious Problem of Overstretched Nurses

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Behind every pandemic is an economy — and nowhere is that more obvious than in Maryland, which was at the front lines of Ebola’s early journey north and which has been plagued by its own massive hiring and workforce issues as public health officials bustle to assess and implement the new regimen.

Harnessing technology is only the first step in slowing diseases down to manageable levels, workers say. What’s needed are better screening and more nurses and doctor aides.

In Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the building lights are still on and the doors are always unlocked, Ebola was just another story. The staff shrugged off heightened risks. But on the floor, in the triage rooms, in the nurses’ offices, tremors started to shake bodies.

To support Ebola, Maryland ordered almost 2,000 new health-care workers, outnumbering the city’s population. That meant holding multiple job fairs and training courses to educate, test and evaluate applicants, especially nurses and advanced registered nurses, for different surgical positions and specialized degrees, and working with 38,000 counties and municipalities to hire and relocate people to critical districts where at-risk groups congregate.

The unemployed and underemployed didn’t take kindly to this shift of American economic priorities.

“I’ve been through 9/11, I’ve been through the [Hurricane] Katrina unemployment crisis,” said Noel Massey, a 46-year-old single mother of three teenagers, who is about to start medical school. “I don’t want to go through another.”

She believes a union would have ensured better protections and earned wages, and says she suffered discrimination from employers, who pressured her to drop out of nursing school.

“I had to think about my future,” she said.

Others were not so sympathetic.

“A free market system?” asked Paolo Karras of Roman Catholic Community College in Baltimore, who was fired by Johns Hopkins after he declined to stay on the Ebola team because his hospital was accepting emergency applicants. “A free market system, of course, does not give you a lot of leeway.”

Katrina Haynes, Maryland’s secretary of health and mental hygiene, said her state had used every tool to meet the hiring needs, and “the economy is strong.”

“That’s not to say that everything we do will always be perfect,” she said. “The greatest hope we have is that we learn from each other and that other states take notes and learn from what we do and what we don’t do.”

She said the state would look for ways to learn from Ebola, but that “it’s not going to be an easy fix to replace essential nurses and support personnel.”

For Ms. Haynes, the pipeline of prepared nurses has been “a challenge,” as have been the struggles to get young people interested in nursing, and women particularly, she said.

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