Wanted: An all-out effort to build nursing numbers in Illinois

A recent think tank report has concluded that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in late winter, a severe nursing shortage already existing in Illinois hospitals meant the state was ill-prepared to meet it.

Illinois was short an estimated 20,000 to 21,000 nurses, says the report by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute.

Even the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, which takes issue with much of the report - arguing that patient care did not suffer even with the shortage, and that the bigger problem was the federal government failing to stockpile personal protection equipment - doesn't dispute the numbers of unfilled nursing jobs.

What the pandemic has made abundantly clear is that a devastating public health crisis can spring up quickly. And should another one occur - or the current one have a deadly rebound in Illinois - the nurse numbers could be more dire still.

Roughly half of all nurses practicing in Illinois hospitals are older than 55. Moreover, COVID-19 has added to the stress and overwork of many medical professionals, so much so that some may choose to leave the profession to preserve their own sanity.

To say nurses are invaluable to the health of Illinois is to understate the case. What the state needs is a nonpolitical effort to recruit and train a new generation of nurses, and then support them throughout their careers to keep them in Illinois.

Danny Chun, spokesman for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, says in order to grow the next generation of practitioners, there needs to be more scholarships for nursing students and incentives to keep nurse educators in the workforce. He adds it should be easier for nurses licensed in other states to practice in Illinois.

Those proposals make sense. We'd add there also have to be incentives that put good nurses in rural hospitals, not just better-paying urban and suburban jobs.

Frank Manzo, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute policy director, said it's hard to say with certainty how much the shortage contributed to the severity of the pandemic in Illinois.

"What we can say is that we could have had more infection prevention and control staff," he said. "We could have had better turnover rates and retention rates for nurses and lower vacancy rates and that would have made us better prepared."

In a national survey of nurses in 2019, 75 percent of Registered Nurses said that understaffing adversely affects their job satisfaction.

With the right initiative, there is no reason why Illinois cannot begin to close the nursing shortage gap. Many of our colleges and universities - and community colleges - have been offering nursing classes and degrees for many years now. It's time for the state to pick up the ball and run with it.

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