Staffing Nursing Homes Was Hard Before the Pandemic. Now It’s Even Tougher.

By: - May 18, 2020 12:00 am

A patient at the Magnolia Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Riverside, California, is evacuated during a coronavirus outbreak last month. Long-term care residents and staff account for more than half of all coronavirus deaths in some states. Chris Carlson / The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

Residents have fallen ill with the new coronavirus in both the Worcester, Massachusetts, nursing homes where Kwaku Tsibo Bondah works. Protective equipment is in short supply, he said, and many of his colleagues have tested positive or are calling in sick because they’re afraid to come to work. 

“It’s really challenging … everybody is in a state of anxiety,” said Bondah, a licensed practical nurse. “Because you are going into a room with someone who has COVID-19 there.” 

Many nursing homes and assisted living facilities were short-staffed before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now it’s even harder to recruit and retain nurses needed to care for residents and stop infection from spreading. 

When nurses and nurse aides are stretched thin, they end up cutting corners. They might fail to wash their hands often enough, or try to lift a frail person by themselves — harming themselves or the people in their care, advocates and people who study the direct care workforce say. 

“We need to have enough staff to appropriately support the staff in there who are putting their lives on the line,” said Mairead Painter, Connecticut’s long-term care ombudsman. “When you’re working short, you make decisions you may not make on a good day.”

Governors and health agencies nationwide are developing “strike teams” of National Guard members and clinicians to help manage coronavirus outbreaks in long-term care facilities. But some state leaders also are trying to solve longer-term staffing problems. 

Massachusetts and Colorado have launched websites to match job seekers with open long-term and residential care positions. Massachusetts is providing $1,000 bonuses for hires who stay on the job for a month, and Arkansas is boosting pay for nurses and other direct care workers from April 5 through the end of May. 

Illinois is among the states letting facilities hire nurses with an out-of-state or recently expired credential and temporarily hire unskilled workers to help feed and clothe residents — a role made possible for the time being by looser federal training and certification requirements for nurse aides.

Story continues after map

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.