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Colorado could be short 10,000 nurses by 2026. Polis, lawmakers roll out plan to shore up staffing

A recent Mercer study shows Colorado in the top-5 for biggest needs in registered nurses — and showing the state could be short 10,000 people by 2026 to fill the vital health care jobs — but state policy makers are hoping a slew of new bills will keep that future from coming.

Gov. Jared Polis announced the effort Thursday with the Democratic lawmakers who will carry the bills in the legislature. It includes creating a stockpile of personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns for health care workers, helping with tuition and training for health care workers and support for existing workforce. Another bill announced at the news conference included $10 million for rural hospitals specifically.

Details for many of the measures are still being finalized before the legislation is introduced in the final throes of the legislative session, and they may change more as more lawmakers get involved. But the event served as a reminder from the state that the pandemic, while in a relative and recent lull — albeit one that is stirring — hasn’t disappeared. It still compounds the everyday stresses on the health care system and shows the need for the state to be prepared for whatever the future holds, Polis said.

“One of the reasons that the country had to take the extreme steps it did is, literally, there were no masks and gowns at hospitals,” Polis said, hearkening back to March 2020. “There were no supplies to be able to treat patients safely. We cannot let that hold us back again. We need to make sure we are ready for whatever lies ahead.”

On Monday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 3,560 confirmed new COVID-19 cases over the prior week — a 34% increase from the week prior. The increase is driven by the new BA.2 variant of the coronavirus. It also reported slightly more people hospitalized with the disease, 88 versus 77 from a week prior. Due to state reporting, it’s unclear if that’s the start of another upward trend or a blip in the springtime decline.

State Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Federal Heights and an emergency room nurse, introduced HB22-1352, the bill to require a stockpile of supplies, at the end of March. He recalled the early days of the pandemic when health care colleagues were reusing hard-to-come-by respirator masks and donning garbage bags instead of medical gowns. But the package is about more than just physical supplies, he said.

Lawmakers intend to tab $61 million in federal relief money to increase training for health care workers through tuition help and investment in training technology. There’s also plans to incentivize recruitment, retention and recouping workers who left health care as the stress of the job took its toll.

“We’ve lost that institutional knowledge,” Mullica said. “We have new grads training new grads right now. We can’t have that. We need that institutional knowledge back.”

The Mercer report noted that Colorado was already in the bottom 5 states in 2021 for biggest need in nurses, with an estimated shortage of 2,640 registered nurses. It also predicted that the state will be short 54,000 lower paid health care workers, such as medical assistants,

home health aides, and nursing assistants, by 2026. Colorado nursing homes in particular are already feeling that pinch.

Hanna Warnecke, an intensive care unit nurse in Denver, said the health care system is in transition from a sprint to a marathon. The shift in mentality means pivoting to recruit more workers and support those that exist. She cited California as an example of a state “renowned” for its structure around patient assignments and stability for workers. Workers need more support to make their profession sustainable, she said.

The bills being introduced are “a big opportunity,” though it’s too early to tell how much of an effect they’ll have, she said.

The safety and humanity of her patients is top of mind for all of her shifts, she said, but when case loads are 130% and 150% of what they should be, something has to give. They can’t sacrifice safety, so there’s less quality, human time with their patients — leaving workers feeling all the more burnt out.

“That’s not the care I want to give and that is absolutely not the care I want my loved ones and community members to receive,” Warnecke said. “What wears me down and fuels the fire of burnout and moral distress are the days when I don’t have the chance to acknowledge my patients’ humanity.”

Joshua Ewing, vice president of legislative affairs for the Colorado Hospital Association, said the state money will work in conjunction with $1 billion health care systems are already spending to bolster their operations. He cited efforts like housing stipends and child care as ways hospitals are working to retain workers.

Because of that money, his organization has “no concerns” about the sustainability of new programs paid for with one-time money. He, like others at the news conference, called the $61 million a “historic investment” in the state’s health care workforce.

“First and foremost, we have to take care of those who are taking care of us,” Ewing, whose group helped develop the workforce package, said. “It’s making sure that we are building in the support for our existing workforce, so we’re not losing anymore of our existing workforce.”