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Nurses are staying in York as out-of-state staffing agencies float big benefits

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Ann Elliott, R.N., left, and clinical operations coordinator and patient safety officer Jennifer Strayer work together at the drive up COVID-19 coronavirus testing site at WellSpan Family Medicine - Cape Horn in Windsor Township, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Candidates must be directed to the facility for testing by a physician prior to arrival. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Hospitals in York County say nurses aren't leaving in droves despite staffing agencies dangling a range of incentives to work in coronvirus hot spots such as New York.

Anticipated nurse shortages to handle the influx of COVID-19 patients have been discussed nationwide. But it's been an urgent concern in areas such as New York, which as of Thursday reported 149,316 cases and 6,268 deaths.

In response, staffing agencies have advertised increased pay and benefits to bring in nurses from around the country.

But so far, York County nurses haven't taken the bait as the state Department of Health on Thursday reported a third local virus-related death.

"We have not experienced a loss in nursing staff to other states," UPMC spokeswoman Kelly McCall, adding that UPMC has promised all staff that they will be paid at their current rate even if they are assigned to alternative work.

More:WellSpan to double ICU beds in preparation for coronavirus peak

More:York County sees 2nd virus-related death, details remain unknown

The benefits of moving to hard-hit states could be tempting for some.

Staffing agency NuWest, for example, has offered to pay out-of-state nurses who opt to work in New York up to $10,000 in hazard pay, relocation bonuses and tax-free housing and food, CNBC has reported.

WellSpan Health, though, also confirmed it has not had retention issues beyond what is normal. 

"We’re proud of them, and we are working every day to support them, just as they are supporting and caring for our patients, our community and one another," said spokesman Ryan Coyle.

The issue has been exacerbated by the fact that the nationwide focus on the coronavirus has postponed other types of medical treatments.

For example, nurse anesthetists in Pennsylvania have been laid off as elective procedures have been canceled, reported The Associated Press.

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For unionized nurses shielded by collective bargaining, though, furloughs haven't been much of a problem, said Matthew Cunningham-Cook, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals.

"We’re really just focusing on the Defense Production Act and getting PPE (personal protective equipment) to our nurses," Cunningham-Cook said. 

State officials and hospitals have also already taken some measures to ensure medical facilities are sufficiently staffed.

Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that retired Pennsylvania health care workers may apply for reactivation of their licenses so they can return to work to help with the COVID-19 response.

Both WellSpan and UPMC officials have said they are reaching out to retired staff to take advantage of the measure.

As of noon Thursday, there were 18,228 Pennsylvanians infected by the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health. There had been 338 virus-related deaths, including one announced Thursday in York County.

There had been 250 confirmed cases in York County since the outbreak began.

The spread of the virus has not only put a strain on staff at hospitals, but also revealed a shortage of intensive care unit beds.

York-area hospitals would need to nearly double the number of beds if 20% of adults were to be infected over the next six months, according to a model created by researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute.

And they could especially be overwhelmed in coming weeks, as some models, such as the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, estimate cases will peak in mid-April.

WellSpan Health on Monday announced it would double the number of its intensive care unit beds as the state braces for a peak in coronavirus cases in coming weeks.

The health care system estimates that it will free up room for 160 additional ICU beds in its hospitals, which span southcentral Pennsylvania. That would mean an additional 60 beds in York County.

UPMC, although not actively adding beds now, has the capability to increase its number of ICU beds by as much as 60% if the demand is there, said spokeswoman Kelly McCall.

On top of that, it could also transform other rooms to house ICU beds, similar to what WellSpan plans to do.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.