DENVER — In March, Claire Tripeny was watching her dream job fall apart. She'd been working as an intensive care nurse at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, Colorado, and loved it, despite the mediocre pay typical for the region. But when COVID-19 hit, that calculation changed.
She remembers her employers telling her and her colleagues to "suck it up" as they struggled to care for six patients each and patched their protective gear with tape until it fully fell apart. The $800 or so a week she took home no longer felt worth it.
"I was not sleeping and having the most anxiety in my life," said Tripeny. "I'm like, 'I'm gonna go where my skills are needed and I can be guaranteed that I have the protection I need.'"
In April, she packed her bags for a two-month contract in then-COVID-19 hot spot New Jersey, as part of what she called a "mass exodus" of nurses leaving the suburban Denver hospital to become traveling nurses. Her new pay? About $5,200 a week, and with a contract that required adequate protective gear.
Months later, the offerings — and the stakes — are even higher for nurses willing to move. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, nurses can make more than $6,200 a week. A recent posting for a job in Fargo, North Dakota, offered more than $8,000 a week. Some can get as much as $10,000.
Early in the pandemic, hospitals were competing for ventilators, COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment. Now, sites across the country are competing for nurses. The fall surge in COVID-19 cases has turned hospital staffing into a sort of national bidding war, with hospitals willing to pay exorbitant wages to secure the nurses they need. That threatens to shift the supply of nurses toward more affluent areas, leaving rural and urban public hospitals short-staffed as the pandemic worsens, and some hospitals unable to care for critically ill patients.
"That is a huge threat," said Angelina Salazar, CEO of the Western Healthcare Alliance, a consortium of 29 small hospitals in rural Colorado and Utah. "There's no way rural hospitals can afford to pay that kind of salary."
Hospitals have long relied on traveling nurses to fill gaps in staffing without committing to long-term hiring. Early in the pandemic, doctors and nurses traveled from unaffected areas to hot spots like California, Washington state and New York to help with regional surges. But now, with virtually every part of the country experiencing a surge — infecting medical professionals in the process — the competition for the finite number of available nurses is becoming more intense.
"We all thought, 'Well, when it's Colorado's turn, we'll draw on the same resources; we'll call our surrounding states and they'll send help,'" said Julie Lonborg, a spokesperson for the Colorado Hospital Association. "Now it's a national outbreak. It's not just one or two spots, as it was in the spring. It's really significant across the country, which means everybody is looking for those resources."
In North Dakota, Tessa Johnson said she's getting multiple messages a day on LinkedIn from headhunters. Johnson, president of the North Dakota Nurses Association, said the pandemic appears to be hastening a brain drain of nurses there. She suspects more nurses may choose to leave or retire early after North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum told health care workers they could stay on the job even if they've tested positive for COVID-19.