WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Florida Hospital Association reports the nursing shortage affects most medical centers in the state, claiming 68% of hospitals -- more than two-thirds -- call their staffing shortage "critical."
"It was bad before the pandemic," said Mary Mayhew, the president and CEO of the FHA.
Mayhew said hospital nurses are leaving the field or taking long leaves of absences as they struggle with long hours and exposure to COVID-19.
"The stress and strain and physical exhaustion that our front-line staffers have been under for 17 months have clearly taken its toll," said Mayhew.
That's especially true for older nurses.
The Florida Center for Nursing reports that, before the pandemic, nearly 40% of Florida nurses were 50 or older.
"They were doing fine until the pandemic," said Betsy Marville, a nurses organizer with the SEIU 1199, the union that represents most unionized nurses in South Florida.
Marville said the pandemic is costing hospitals their most experienced nurses
"The older you get, it's hard to work 14 hours on your feet without taking a break," said Marville. "And since nothing was done to alleviate that, a lot of them just retired."
Others left the state.
"Before the pandemic, travelers were between $50 and $60 an hour," said intensive care unit nurse AK Khapour, who became a traveler, or traveling nurse, shortly after the pandemic hit last year.
Traveling nurses typically sign three-month contracts, often receiving a hotel room and a meal allowance to work at Medical Centers across the U.S.
Kapur is now at a Baltimore hospital making $120 per hour, which is four times what he made not long ago as a staff nurse in South Florida.
"The place I was working at, half the people left, through traveling," said Kapur.
Many medical experts expect coronavirus cases to increase in the coming days. That's expected to tax hospital budgets and exhausted nurses, some of whom have been on the front lines during the pandemic now for a grueling 17 months.