Alabama Governor Kay Ivey reallocated $12.3 million of CARES Act funding to help overwhelmed hospitals attract travel nurses, state authorities announced Friday.
Hospitals across the country, particularly in the South, are struggling to keep up with COVID-19 surges among the unvaccinated. The latest influx of acute COVID-19 cases has exacerbated lingering staffing shortages, prompting calls for higher pay, better working conditions and more training programs.
"I'm pleased to see more folks getting vaccinated, but we are still in the thick of COVID-19 and our hospitals are overwhelmed," Ivey said in a news release. "Until our vaccination rates rise and our COVID-19 hospitalization rates fall, we will need the extra support these nurses provide."
Alabama has received $1.9 billion in federal pandemic relief funds. The $12.3 million was redirected from unused funds earmarked for reimbursement shortfalls. Meanwhile, states are pitted against each other as they compete for labor, which will drive up wages and segment "winners and losers," healthcare workforce experts said.
Hospitals across the state were already facing a nursing shortage prior to the pandemic. The shortage has further strained overworked nurses, the Alabama Hospital Association said.
"With soaring numbers of hospitalizations and continued extreme staffing shortages, the governor's provision of funds is a great step toward bringing additional skilled staff to our state's hospitals," the association said in a statement. "Every hospital in our state needs support right now. The lack of ICU beds, negative 120 at last count, is a direct result of not having enough staff, and that's a crisis that cannot continue."
Rural communities are more vulnerable to staffing fluctuations, research shows. Rural Missouri counties have a higher percentage of older nurses nearing retirement, a recent University of Missouri study found. Fifty-five of Alabama's 67 counties are designated as rural.
That has led to an increase in nursing job openings, particularly among emergency and intensive care specialties, a recent Avant Healthcare Professionals survey found. More than a third of 100 hospital executives surveyed in January and February had more than 25 registered nurse job openings in 2021, up from 17% in 2020.
There is a backlog of visas for thousands of international travel nurses ready to help, which is compounding the issue, according to Avant, noting a petition to fast-track immigrant nurse visa processing.
The amount of approved visa petitions has increased from 60,000 per month in 2019 to more than 500,000 a month in 2021, Avant wrote in recent a blog post.