Heather Norton had long wanted to travel the country, but her schedule — and salary — wouldn't permit it.
So last month, Norton took the plunge, leaving her positions at a Raleigh, North Carolina, hospital and as a part-time nursing instructor at Wake Technical Community College. She signed on as a travel nurse, combining the profession she loves with the change of scenery she craved, boosting her salary in the process.
"Once you decide you want to do travel nursing, recruiters are everywhere," said Norton, who graduated from nursing school a decade ago. "You can have your choice of jobs in every state in the country. This gives me a lot more opportunity."
In the hospital where she worked for the past seven years, Norton "floated," moving between different floors and different specialties such as telemetry or surgery.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has worn on, taxing nurses' physical strength and emotional tolerance for bedside work, thousands of travel nursing companies have been luring away hospital staff.
"The salaries they promise go up almost weekly," said Danny Yoder, emergency department manager at UNC Rex Healthcare. "I just saw an offer for a travel nurse in Florida for $5,200 a week."
In the previous two weeks, Yoder said, the emergency department had hired eight nurses and still had nine openings.
Even with 128 nursing schools whose graduates tend to stay and work in the state, North Carolina has long had to import about half the nurses needed for hospitals, nursing facilities, doctors' offices, clinics and other settings. The state has been unable to recruit the full number of nurses needed for years, said Erin Fraher, deputy director of the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Service Research at UNC.
When the pandemic hit, hospitals in other states had to ramp up their operations, increasing the competition for available nurses and worsening the shortage here, Fraher said. While travel nursing predates the pandemic, the industry boomed once it hit. During the Delta variant surge in the fall, agencies offering ever-higher salaries have lured nurses from hospitals all over the country.
Hospitals often are left to fill the gaps using travel nurses, sometimes hiring back their own former employees at a much higher rate.