TRENTON — As new COVID infections, hospitalizations and the rate of transmission (r/t) continues to rise in New Jersey, there are growing concerns about staffing shortages at hospitals across the Garden State.

During Wednesday’s virtual coronavirus response press conference, New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said she has been speaking to a number of hospital CEOs about the shortages they face, adding that there are multiple factors responsible for the shortages, including exhaustion.

Why are hospitals short-staffed?

Burnout is one challenge facing health care workers amid the pandemic.

“Those that have worked over the past 22 months taking care of patients that are suffering from COVID, the nurses are tired and they’re burned out,” Persichilli said.

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She said besides burnout, another factor is "age out," where many nurses who were near retirement have now decided it’s time to pack things in and stop working.

Persichilli said there is also the issue of "buyout," where nurses are being offered “very attractive packages from staffing agencies, for individuals to leave and work as an agency nurse or sometimes a traveling nurse.”

She noted, “In some cases they’re not only bought out, they’re then sold back to the hospitals that they had just left.”

Kerry McKean Kelly, the vice president of communications and member services for the New Jersey Hospital Association, said work-life balance issues are another piece of the labor shortage puzzle for health care workers.

“For example, if during the pandemic they are also caring for children or aging parents, just balancing those priorities can be a challenge,” she said.

Competition is fierce

Kelly also pointed out that with the nationwide labor shortage continuing, “whether it’s an Amazon warehouse or a restaurant, we’re competing with those businesses for a lot of really important jobs like a nurse assistant or housekeeping or dietary staff.”

She said the health care labor shortage was a problem even before the pandemic, but it’s definitely been made worse by COVID and it is impacting hospitals all over the Garden State and across the nation.

Persichilli said her department is working with hospital leaders to develop “operating models and economic models that support nurses staying within the confines of a hospital and really promoting more individuals entering the profession.”

Gov. Phil Murphy said health care workers have been struggling mightily since the pandemic began more than 21 months ago, “which makes the folks who are unvaccinated, getting sick and willfully ignoring the science, and going into these hospitals and adding to their burden even more unacceptable, even though we keep all of them in our prayers — they are adding to the problem.”

He said we need to continue to look for ways to attract new nurses and other health care workers, and make these positions as attractive as possible.

During the update Murphy announced another 3,274 cases, with 1,409 patients in the hospital, the highest total since early May.

Meanwhile, the r/t is now at 1.36, up from 1.26 on Tuesday. Any rate above 1 indicates the pandemic continues to expand.

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