The nursing shortage crisis in America: how COVID-19 exposed us to a leading healthcare concern

As the pandemic surges on, an overwhelmingly prevalent nursing deficit leaves us reaching for the roots of the national problem.


Getty Images

What’s causing the shortage of bedside nurses across the U.S.? The problem entails much more at hand.

Jasmin Parrado, Staff Writer

As the past two years have brought about some of the worst hardships and obstacles to overcome in wake of COVID-19, hospitals, offices, and nursing homes have known a great deal of loss with patients—and they have also lost countless nurses in the process as well.

The American Nurses Association has predicted that 2022 will entail the most employment availability for registered nursing—and at that, substantially more availability than for any other job position in America. Consider this: availability tends to follow absence. To fill the prevalent void amidst the chronic lack of active nursing positions, millions upon millions of nurses will be needed.

I’ve taken a step back to analyze this issue of sorts that has always seemed quite unfamiliar and unexplored when it comes to how the healthcare industry chooses to play its cards with distributing staff assignments for medical workers. Various opinions and studies I’ve collected on this issue have wavered, yet they have all unanimously introduced to me the idea that medical staff shortage is one of the most prominent and severe outcomes of the decade.

Numerous questions underlie the basis of this search for the origin of a seemingly unlikely situation given the effort and high pay that nurses are promised. Upon observing this, we ask ourselves many things: what con in retrospect justifiably overrides concerns of pay and routine? Who or what is responsible for this issue that raises all others in a widespread domino effect?

A peer-reviewed medical article published through StatPearls dissects the American nursing shortage and states that various circumstances must be considered in wake of this issue: that includes the outflow of an older workforce population, immense violence experienced in the workplace by nurses, and a rapid growth in patient population due to an overall seniority percentage increase—specifically by 71 million percent—in the country. I openly considered these factors under a brief mental emulation of pre-pandemic cursors, but none seemed so outstanding as to be the sole perpetrator for the nursing shortage—that was until I found one constantly appearing within various reports of the national issue.

Under “Clinical Significance,” the StatPearls article proposes staffing ratios as both causes and effects of the issue. Staffing ratios in the medical industry follow as would any ratio between staffing and customers; however, their significance in context to the needs of patients amplifies just how detrimental an insufficient patient-to-nurse ratio can be to both groups.

When researching further, this factor consistently showed up under various media platforms. The New York Times recently released an opinion video produced by Lucy King that caught my eye with the bold title making a statement I was seeking to learn more about: “Hospital Greed is Destroying Our Nurses. Here’s Why.”

I was taken aback upon scanning those words. Greed? How can industrial greed possibly infiltrate a field of work so necessary, straightforward, do-or-die—literally—and do it to such a devastating extent? The New York Times delves into the same topic of the nationwide nursing shortage but zooms in specifically on the nurse-to-patient ratio, investigating testimonies of retiring nurses that point to the possibility of an ulterior purpose behind dysfunctional staffing assignments.

The op-ed video argues that the most prevalent reason for the shortage is that there has never been a genuine shortage of nurses available across the country—that in fact, “there has never been more licensed nurses in America. Hospitals just aren’t hiring them.”

King’s NYT Opinion Series video goes on to argue how this shortage was deliberately created by the hospital industry for the sole purpose of optimizing profits. In this perspective, hospitals are intentionally holding back staffing to achieve this, in the respect that medical facilities and programs function just as any business would and therefore are subject to this same level of greed.

In this light, nurses are being overworked with an uneven ratio that entails higher mortality rates for each patient they care for. The increased probability of a patient dying in the span of time that a nurse must attend to others in the healthcare setting is a setback for the very nurse in question when considering the continuation of the nursing practice. Concerns of mental health in wake of guilt in the face of higher mortality, stress, and subsequent depression, as well as physical strain from unreasonable circumstances that urge continuous cycling between patients, can detract nurses from proceeding with their work as a result of their situation.

Then the question comes: has this always been such a heavy problem in healthcare, or did the COVID-19 pandemic drive us from a perfectly maneuverable staffing situation among many other problems in healthcare to the most chaotic one driving the national crisis?

As a Florida nurse with years of experience in the healthcare industry, Balbina Nasiff believes that this issue most certainly is not stemmed from the latter.

“The COVID-19 crisis just amplified something that was already there. Burst the bubble, so to speak,” Nasiff stated. “We’ve always had a nursing shortage crisis.”

On this note, there’s much to look at when analyzing how the pandemic exacerbated a problem already present. Nasiff mentioned how, on a usual basis, nurses will often branch out into other specialties besides bedside care, already subsequently lessening the number of nurses in that position to that respect. In addition, we must consider (as aforementioned) the older workforce population that prospectively seeks to retire by this time rate.

By spiraling fear and panic within the industry, the virus brought this shortage to light and accelerated the rate at which nursing staff shortages occur. In wake of the dire circumstances that urge the presence of healthcare workers, we feel the effects of the shortages in place more than ever—and so do the nurses themselves, as they are assigned more jobs and patients than they can handle.

“No one wants to go to the Covid rooms,” Nasiff explained. “Nurses are responsible for everything now. They have to work with more patients, doing other things that were often the responsibility of other personnel.”

From this, we can see how frustration and burnout result from a circumstance such as this. However, Nasiff disagrees with the notion that such a result concerning staffing on part of the hospitals can be easily changed or resolved since it has always existed. Many are debating the thought or prospect of resolving this issue, with many like The New York Times pressing for legislative enforcing of staff ratios, meanwhile others like the Massachusetts hospital lobby in 2018 advocate for turning the staffing ratio decision to the nursing staff themselves so that they can apply critical thinking on a circumstantial basis.

So we’ve gathered in this process of exploring the health industry’s looming problem that its birth has been since long ago; and COVID-19 brought it to its test. Some blame the industry, and some believe it is necessary for some hospitals to determine these ratios to maintain good financial standing. It is fair to say these disagreements come from where we diverge on our beliefs in the origin of this problem.

Years have gone by without much resolve on this issue, but with such tumultuous and testing times that urge us to put the reigns on the problems that have persisted, I’ll say one thing I know for sure: it is the perfect time to finally learn what has been running our most precious and necessary facilities into complete chaos—and to finally address it.