Indiana long-term care facilities experience staff shortage amid pandemic

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INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Health Care Association confirms it is trying to recruit and retain employees for long-term care facilities.

While there are more than 50,000 providers and professionals working in Indiana skilled nursing facilities, Zach Cattell, the IHCA president, told CBS4 certain positions are remaining vacant for longer periods of time.

“Some companies are reporting to us they are hiring fewer people this year than they were last year,” he said.

Cattell is now collecting data to compare vacancy levels year over year.

People working within long-term care facilities didn’t want to go on camera but described the tense work environment they have had to deal with over the last year. Not only did they have to try to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, but many had to treat coronavirus-positive patients. Workers had to wear extra personal protection equipment, which took a physical toll on them.

“You’re doing a lot more for a lot more people within the infection control space in particular, and that’s very demanding,” Cattell said. “Pre-pandemic, when you would perhaps have a particular infection like C-DIF or an influenza outbreak – just the common flu – you would be doing standard precautions or transmission-raised precautions for a relatively small number of people. When you have an outbreak of COVID-19, it has been spreading faster.”

Workers also told CBS4 that working in long-term care facilities and nursing homes has been emotionally exhausting. Because the residents went into lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, employees became their only link to the outside world. The employees were not only providing care, but also a sense of entertainment to senior citizens. Some said they tried innovating socially distanced activities into the facilities, just so the residents would have something to do.

“A lot of staff has gotten creative with their residents,” Cattell acknowledged. “They make sure not only are they connected with folks in the outside community, their family and friends, but they’re connected internally.”

The Department of Workforce Development estimates there were about 166,000 postings for healthcare positions in our region in 2020. About 20,000 of those were in long-term care facilities.

“The Midwest has been a significant hot spot for the last few months and particularly even in Indiana, where were up 1,000% to where we were at this time last year,” said Lauren Pasquale Bartlett, the senior vice president of marketing at staffing agency Fastaff.

Fastaff typically places traveling nurses at hospitals when there are hurricanes, floods or wildfires but said it, too, had to shift its focus during the pandemic. It is now placing nurses in places where there is a critical need amid the pandemic.

“In one word, it’s terrible,” said travel ICU nurse Lydia Mobley. “It’s terrible watching people die every night.”

Mobley said being a travel nurse has taken a toll on her, too.

“All I want to do is sleep,” she said. “I usually eat, and I try to go to sleep.”

Mobley has so far felt lucky, being that she typically cares for two patients within the ICU. Other hospitals and facilities have had to juggle several patients at a time.

“I have gone whole 12-hour shifts without getting to go to the bathroom,” she said. “These people are critically ill. They’re on a ventilator, which most people know as life support. Their condition change by the second.”

Mobley has sat with several COVID-positive patients during their final moments. Often, she is the only person allowed into their room. She said during difficult times, she’ll hold the patient’s hand and pray.

“But unfortunately, again, going back to the staffing issues, there are still other patients that need attention. So we don’t always – as much as we would like to be – we don’t always get to be in the room at that time or for the full time. So, we just try to make them as comfortable as we can,” Mobley said.

Mobley said working on the frontlines has posed a risk not only to her, but her family. For that reason, she has not seen them in person for months.

“I am very close with my grandmother, and I call her every day. It makes me very sad not to be able to go into her house because I want to hug her so bad, and I don’t think she fully understands why I don’t. I tell her, ‘Nanny, I love you. I don’t want to get you sick,” Mobley said with emotion.

When asked about whether the compensation makes up for all of this, Mobley said nurses remain underpaid.

“And not just nurses, to be clear. Respiratory therapists, patient care techs, housekeepers, there are a lot of positions in the hospital that are underpaid, and we’re under appreciated,” she said.

When it comes to long-term care facilities, the president of the Indiana Health Care Association said overall, average wages are increasing to compensate for the lagging fill rate amid the pandemic. Some places are offering increased pay to try and attract new employees. Managers said they are using sign-on bonuses and shift differentials as tools to recruit. Some companies are also offering hazard pay.

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