Iowa Nursing Shortage Looms As More RNs Quit Due To COVID Burnout

Statewide Iowa — As COVID-19 hospitalizations rise in Iowa, nurses remain the health care workers who are vital to caring for the sickest patients.

A year and a half into the pandemic, nurses in some parts of the state are at risk of burning out. Bridget Otto, a nurse in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, says she dreads watching her hospital’s COVID unit fill up again.

Otto says the pandemic has strained her love of the profession and she’s decided to go back to school this fall to pursue a degree as a family nurse practitioner. Lisa Caffery, president of the Iowa Nurses Association, says nurses are used to seeing death but not in the numbers they’ve seen during this pandemic, especially in the hospitals in larger cities.

Caffery says she’s heard of many Iowa bedside nurses quitting or retiring early in the last year. She says that’s pushed some of those remaining to work extra 12-hour shifts amid the waves of sick patients.

Even before the pandemic, nurses nationwide were in short supply, and Iowa has one of the lowest average rates of pay for R-Ns in the country. Kylie Olson graduated from nursing school last summer and got her first job working in the COVID unit at the Pella Regional Health Center. Olson calls it “baptism by fire.”

Olson says if she hadn’t been transferred to the hospital’s labor and delivery unit in February, she may have quit nursing. While applications to nursing programs have increased during the pandemic, retaining new nurses past their first year can be tough. According to one report, nearly a quarter of all new RNs leave within a year.