BLOOMINGTON — Steve Meier isn't in nursing for the thank-yous.
A doctor of nursing practice student at Illinois State University and full-time emergency room nurse manager at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Meier described his role in the profession as a sort of calling — something with an element of selflessness to it.
But that doesn't mean he wants to be taken for granted.
As hospital beds fill across the state with the unvaccinated and some regional medical centers become overwhelmed by yet another COVID-19 wave, Meier said it can be difficult not to feel exactly that way: taken for granted.
"By the second wave, people were exhausted, everyone was tired of dealing with the pandemic — and then everyone kind of forgot that we were still dealing with that," he said in an interview with The Pantagraph.
"I think these careers and contributions to society can often get overlooked — we just expect them to be there, but there's actual people in these roles and impacted families on the flip side."
One of two lucky winners of a $1 million cash prize in the state vaccine lottery lives in Bloomington.
An eyewitness to the impact of COVID-19 on emergency room nurses, Meier did research for ISU on compassion fatigue, broadly defined as a response to intense stress that causes caregivers to struggle to show empathy to those being cared for.
"I saw from my research that compassion fatigue exists in all sorts of specialties," he said. "Unfortunately, it is a theme that exists within nursing in general and I think it speaks to the fact that nursing, obviously, is a very caring field and we give a lot and can get burnt out."
Burnout — whether due to pay, working conditions or otherwise — and an aging workforce are among the challenges facing the health care industry as a worker shortage that existed long before COVID continues to worsen.
The local impact
Local health care providers said it's not just RNs who are in short supply: Certified nurses assistants, respiratory therapists and behavioral health workers are also needed.
More than 100 positions are open at Bloomington's OSF St. Joseph Medical Center alone, Director of Recruitment and Human Resources Julie Mueller said.
"The unprecedented labor market we are currently in has led to staffing challenges in some key areas. We recognize that the pandemic posed a hardship on many individuals, and may have led them to temporarily exit the workforce," she said.
"In an effort to recruit new and former employees, we are offering incentives such as rehires gaining their seniority time and new hires starting at $15 an hour."
Similarly, Chestnut Health Systems is looking to fill more than 100 positions across Illinois, as well as at its one location in Missouri.
Before the pandemic, "nurse recruitment was tough, but it was nothing compared to what it is now," said the nonprofit's chief operating officer, Puneet Leekah.
"We have over 700 employees systemwide across our 10 locations," he added. "Of those, we have 130 positions open. That's more than we've ever had open in our history."
Across the board, burnout and stress are recurring themes among those who decide to leave the system altogether.
"I think some are also taking stock of their lives and how they want to spend their time," Leekah said. "Perhaps they don't want to work full time, or perhaps they want to spend their energy somewhere else. All these things are just emerging."
Chestnut reinstated sign-on and retention bonuses in an attempt to boost its workforce, he said, and an administrative position that studies employee experience has been added to the executive level.
Carle Health declined to give specific numbers on its current vacancies.
Public health isn't exempt from the effects of the shortage, either: At the McLean County Health Department, four positions remain unfilled, ranging from a registered nurse position to a dental hygienist.
The longest vacancy has been the position for a dental hygienist: MCHD spokeswoman Marianne Manko said the job has been open for nine months.
The next generation
Another challenge compounding the nursing shortage in Illinois is a need for educators to train the next generation.
"We need more faculty," ISU Mennonite College of Nursing Dean Judy Neubrander said. "Although there are wonderful benefits to being a faculty member, the pay isn't always the same as maybe in a hospital or other clinical settings. We're working on getting the salaries higher."
Dr. Elizabeth Aquino, president of the Illinois Nurses Association, said a lack of faculty limits the number of students who can enroll in a given program.
"We're not even able to keep up with the demand," she said. "That demand and that need is not being met."
Locally, there is a demand to enroll in nursing programs: Nuebrander said 40 more students were enrolled this year at ISU; Illinois Wesleyan University's program increased by two this year, from 48 to 50, and enrollment remained steady in Heartland Community College's programs.
"Sometimes I hear people say, 'I felt really motivated by seeing nursing on television and with the news of the pandemic, I just wanted to help,'" said Heartland's dean of health sciences, Jennifer O'Connor. "I've also heard the other thing: 'I've started this program and I've realized I don't want to be a nurse in the pandemic.'
"I think for some people, it really kind of is about answering a call. I think that some have also seen the really broken spots in the health care system and thought, 'No, that's not for me.'"
Added IWU School of Nursing Professor and Director Victoria Folse, "I think there are good things, if you will, that came from the pandemic in terms of this passionate commitment to to help others, but I would say there is healthy demand for better balance.
"Unless our nurses are mentally, physically and spiritually healthy, they have little to give."
Proposed solutions to the issue vary, ranging from fairer compensation to better work environments to sufficient support staff available for nurses.
Either way, industry insiders agree: Something has to change.
But first, Aquino said, nurses and health care workers would just like the pandemic to end.
"I continue to hear (nurses) say that if people want to be supportive of frontline workers, then they need to get vaccinated, they need to continue to use protective measures like wearing a mask and minimizing their risk," she said. "That way, (nurses) are not being overwhelmed in the hospital with more COVID patients, and also at the same time dealing with a staffing shortage.
"We're not going to be able to solve this nursing shortage right at this moment, but if we can alleviate some the extra strain that they're dealing with right now from the pandemic, that can at least make sure that whoever is in the hospital or needs medical care — whether it's a COVID patient or not — is able to actually have a nurse that can take care of that."