Hospitals in South Florida hire temporary travel nurses when times get tough, but inside hospitals it has never tougher than it is right now according to the latest state COVID-19 numbers.
Thousands of travel nurses have worked in Florida throughout the pandemic but still more are needed.
Christina Akey lives up the coast in Palm Bay, Florida. Her first six years as a nurse were in local hospitals in Central Florida as a staff nurse, then the pandemic happened.
Akey is now just beginning a 13-week contract on the road through Aya Healthcare, temporarily working in North Miami as South Florida sees an increase in unvaccinated hospital patients with COVID-19.
She has five kids back in Palm Bay; two have disabilities, she says.
“So we had to figure out between us who could make enough money to support the family and travel nursing makes that possible,” Akey said.
About 18-months into the pandemic, every major hospital system in South Florida is using travel nurses. At times, the majority of nurses on a shift could be from out-of-town but overseen by staff nurses. Everyone she works with is working 12-hour shifts to try and stop death from the Delta variant, said Akey.
“You’re taking on more and more patients with less and less help and the patients are all sicker and sicker. It’s really hard not to beat yourself up over missing things,” Akey said. “A lot of the ICU nurses got so burnt out seeing death every day. You know, not just one, like 12, one right after another.”
A key difference between travel and staff nurses is the cost. Many local nurses can make between $800 and $1,000 per week. Travel nurses can make more than $3,000 a week in South Florida at the moment.
Hospital leaders tell NBC 6 the cost is justified because they simply need more workers to keep their patient-to-nurse ratio down.
“We’re bringing in as much help as we can to fill the gaps in our staffing,” chief nursing officer at Broward Health Cheryl Wild told NBC 6 earlier this month.
One look at job postings in Florida show the demand, with hundreds of nurses needed “ASAP.” According to an Aya Healthcare online database, there are close to 3,800 nurse-related job openings in Florida. That is the highest number in the country behind Texas and California.
“I’m able to go where I’m needed and where my help is most wanted and useful and then I’m able to go when the need isn’t there anymore,” Akey said.
Akey tells NBC 6 the higher pay is a positive but there are negatives too. Since she’s on the road, she misses her children’s school plays and football games. Her youngest child’s first day of kindergarten is this week.
The need is not going away. It’s part of a national shortage as older nurses retire or take less stressful jobs.
Three out of four Florida hospitals reported to the Florida Hospital Association they will be in a critical staffing need in the next week.