The pandemic made travel nurses the frontline heroes fighting the virus, but the work has taken a heavy toll

The pandemic made travel nurses the frontline heroes fighting the virus, but the work has taken a heavy toll
Nurse Cindy Kelbert, left, checks on a critically ill COVID-19 patient through a glass door as she is surrounded by other nurses at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif., Tuesday, July 7, 2020.Jae C. Hong/AP Photo
  • Travel nurses are in high demand in the US as COVID-19 cases surge and hospitals are overwhelmed.
  • Unlike early waves of the outbreak, staffing agencies say demand goes beyond just a few hotspots.
  • Nurses tell Insider they're burnt out and are unsure how long they can stay on the frontlines.

Travel nurses have been in high demand all across the US while COVID-19 cases surged through the end of 2020 into January this year.

Some nurses who have been on the frontlines throughout the pandemic say they're burnt out as the country appears to be slowly emerging from what has been the deadliest wave of the pandemic yet.

Travel nurses were instrumental in the fight against COVID-19 in the early days, but representatives from several staffing agencies that dispatch them to the areas most in need told Insider they've been pulled in all directions this time around.

"Instead of a few hotspots where you could focus a supply of nurses very quickly, now the entire country has almost three times the demand that we did a year ago," Dan Weberg, the head of clinical innovation at Trusted Health told Insider. If you have a limited supply and a lot of demand, getting nurses to the right spots becomes more difficult."

Hospitalizations have set records in the past few weeks. As of February 9, the COVID-19 Tracking Project reported more than 79,000 current hospitalizations in the US. The same day, it also reported slightly more than 92,000 new daily cases.


Weberg said that at the peak of the winter surge, more critical-care nurses and those who work in the ICU and specialize in telemetry were needed in the Midwestern states that have been especially hard-hit by the virus.

Many travel nurses have also worked during the first waves

Alan Braynin, the president of Aya Healthcare, a company that hires travel nurses, told Insider demand increased significantly after the second wave in July, but a resurgence in the fall prompted a hiring spree at the agency. A company spokesperson said that in November, the company had more than 27,000 open jobs, a 64% increase over the month prior.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, Tayler Oakes, a travel nurse working as a public health official for the Navajo Nation said she is unsure how sustainable it is for her to continue at a frenetic pace, citing her six-day work weeks and a hesitation to take any time off.

"There comes a point of being so burnt out that the money's not even worth it," she said, lamenting that things got "exponentially worse" in the fall and winter.

"So then you get into this cycle of 'I'm tired. but I can't rest while also knowing there's no end in sight. So you suffer, the patients suffer. It's just, it's not sustainable," Oakes said.


Nurses on the frontlines are burnt-out and mentally strained

"Honestly, I'm not coping well. I know there's this whole sentiment of 'health care heroes.' I know it's well-intentioned, but it's not accurate. And I personally think it's damaging," Oakes said. "We're scared. We're tired. We're frustrated. We're human beings. I think it's wrong to project this hero expectation on us."

"It sets us up for feelings of guilt when we feel human emotion, and worse than that, it sets the tone that we can or should sacrifice our safety and well-being for the well-being of others."

She said the Navajo Nation is vulnerable on multiple fronts - some of which they cannot control, even though they may abide by all the guidelines to help curb the virus. Many community members work outside of town in places where guidelines are not as strictly followed or enforced, meaning they remain susceptible to exposure.

The Navajo Nation, which spans across parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, is home to more than 173,000 people. As of February 9, the region has reported nearly 30,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 1,100 deaths.

With nurses in high-demand, smaller hospitals lose out

Adam Francis, CEO of Host health care told Insider that rural hospitals lose out when the demand for travel nurses grows. Larger hospitals that have more resources are able to hire more nurses. That disparity leads to gaps in care.


"There is a bit of competition right now going on between hospitals in the sense that hospitals are competing nationwide for travelers. They're also competing within their region," Francis told Insider in an interview last fall. "As far as rates are concerned, it puts stress on the health systems that may not be as financially stable and may not have the resources to pay these very high rates to bring on travelers," said.

Taylor Dilick, a travel nurse who was stationed in Green Bay, Wisconsin, told Insider she wanted to be on the frontlines of the pandemic.

As COVID-19 erupted all over the US, she worked in New York, then Arizona, before ending up in Wisconsin. Dilick said she's been able to take care of her mental health, thanks to a strong support system, but she said the circumstances her patients have endured have put her and other health care workers "between a rock and a hard place." She has found herself playing dual roles of both medical care provider and emotional support for her patients and their families.

Despite the inherent risks of the medical profession during a global health crisis, Dilick said, thanks to ample PPE supplies which had become scarce at the start of the pandemic, she feels safer working with COVID-19 patients now more than before.

"Whereas say somebody out in the general public at a grocery store risks potential exposure, I feel like, working in the COVID unit, I know what the patients have and I know that I'm protected, so I feel safe," she said.


Supporting health care workers means taking the pandemic seriously

Dilick said she feels frustrated some people have refused to take the pandemic seriously. She acknowledged it can be difficult for some people to put their lives on pause, but said the reality of COVID-19 is there are a lot of people who go into the hospital and "never leave."

"People aren't seeing what we're seeing in the hospital, which is good," Dilick said. "I hope nobody has to see it because it is a terrible sight to see. I mean, ignorance is bliss, but at the same time, we're telling you that this is occurring. So, trust us." she said.

"I'm not saying that every case of COVID-19 is the extreme case, but there are many extreme cases that people don't see and even though you're not seeing it, it's very real and it's very unfortunate."