Mississippi healthcare providers say they may have to close floors and reduce patient beds after losing hundreds of nurses due to the recent expiration of a federal contract put in place to help the state battle the coronavirus pandemic.
During the last wave of COVID-19, 900 nurses were deployed to hospitals across the state under a 60-day contract funded by the federal government. That contract expired Nov. 1 and the number of virus cases has subsided since the summer peak.
Those nurses were crucial for caring for patients during the virus surge, but they also helped fill another urgent need — filling gaps left by nurses who have left the state during the last two years.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in August that the state had lost at least 2,000 nurses over the course of the pandemic. Nurses are leaving Mississippi for other states and traveling nurse companies that can pay higher wages.
Jessica Lewis, executive director of human resources at Singing River Health System on the Mississippi coast, told the Sun Herald that Singing River has lost around 240 nurses during the pandemic.
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The expiration of the federal contract will mean the hospital system is losing 70 staff positions and 100 hospital beds.
"It's just a big taffy pull ... everyone is scurrying out there trying to get the talent and keep their doors open," Lewis told the Herald.
Singing River joined 17 other major health systems, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn in writing an Oct. 21 letter to Reeves asking for further assistance to address the nursing shortage using federal pandemic relief money allocated to the state.
"We are asking that you set aside a portion of those funds to quickly establish a program to incent healthcare workers, particularly nurses, to remain in and return to their hospitals," the letter reads.
In a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Reeves' spokesperson Bailey Martin said the contract nurses were only permitted to work with coronavirus patients, per federal regulations. At the peak of the surge, there were 1,667 Mississippians in hospital beds with COVID-19, she said. As of Tuesday, that number decreased by almost 90% to 172.
"The contract fulfilled its mission," she said, adding that Reeves believes it is critically important to increase the number of workforce development opportunities for healthcare professionals.
"The Governor's Office is discussing nurse retention programs with the legislature and looking forward to working with them to devise a solution that will have a long-term impact on meeting Mississippi's healthcare professional needs," she said.