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Staff shortages are main concern at Duluth ICU

Intensive care nurses at St. Luke's said the shortage is due to employees retiring early, leaving the field due to burnout and seeking higher-paying travel nursing jobs.

Wearing protective gear nurses Paul Johnson and Jen Reed pull on gloves before caring for COVID-19 patients in one of St. Luke’s intensive care units Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — A few weeks ago at St. Luke's intensive care unit in Duluth, it was nearly impossible to find an available bed for a patient. While patient volumes have decreased slightly since then, there is still a critical shortage at the hospital: staff.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, St. Luke's ICU nurse Heather Swanson described witnessing a "mass exodus" of nurses and other staff.

“An open bed does not mean that it’s a staffed bed, and there’s a big difference between the two," Swanson said. "You can stay at home and be in bed, but having the skilled person to take care of you is what it’s about.”

Brittney Kurhajetz, interim critical care manager at the St. Luke's ICU, said the main reasons for the shortage are early retirements, staff leaving the field due to burnout and nurses choosing to work as travel nurses instead. Travel nurses are typically paid high rates because the contract process is extremely competitive, and many small health care organizations can't compete with larger organizations that can afford to pay higher wages.

St. Luke’s Interim Critical Care Manager Brittney Kurhajetz, left, listens as staff nurse and educator Heather Swanson talks on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, about nursing during a pandemic. “The people that are dying (from COVID-19) in ICUs are unvaccinated,” Swanson said. “And that’s just the pure, simple facts.” Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune free


St. Luke's ICU nurse Jordan Baird said while burnout levels depend on the individual experience, nearly every staff member has been working overtime to help fill the gaps in staff. Nurses in the ICU need to have a rounded set of skills and experience, so it's harder to find qualified staff to fill vacancies. Baird said he hasn't worked a regular week without overtime since sometime this summer.

“Most of our nurses here are working in hours way beyond what a normal FT (full time) would be," Baird said. "A lot of us are working 50-, 60-, 70-hour weeks at times and that’s because we look out for one another. We can’t create nurses that can work here out of thin air, so we stay and become an extra and we do everything we can.”

And the shortages aren't just in nurses. Marla Halvorson, St. Luke's human resources director, said in October that there were several hundred open positions across the health care system, including nurses, nurse assistants, technicians, clerical support, hospitality services and office employees.

Nurse Paul Johnson pulls on protective gear before caring for a COVID-19 patient in one of St. Luke’s intensive care units Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“We are looking for staff in almost every corner of the organization," Halvorson said. "There are a lot of opportunities here. Health care has been through a lot in the last year and a half, but this is also a very rewarding field.”

Kurhajetz said she feels lucky to work with the team at St. Luke's, where staff are willing to work above and beyond to fill the gaps left by shortages in order to help patients. Several departments, including surgical units, have been combined in order to consolidate available staff.

“It’s a small enough hospital that people know each other," Kurhajetz said. "You’re really trying to help one another out all the time.”

Swanson said she doesn't believe the shortages were worsened by St. Luke's employee COVID-19 vaccination mandate because most staff members either were willing to be vaccinated or received an exemption. In October, St. Luke's reported a total of 27 employees resigned because of the mandate, which was less than 1% of the health care system's total staff.


St. Luke’s staff nurse and educator Jordan Baird talks about the struggles to be adequately staffed during the COVID-19 pandemic Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Jordan said the last time he worked a regular full-time shift without overtime was "probably this summer.” Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune free

Baird said one of the biggest struggles of the most recent COVID surge in hospitalizations is that other emergent conditions, including strokes, injuries, surgeries and other patients needing intensive care do not stop. If at any time there was a vacancy at St. Luke's, the health care system was receiving patients from other Northland hospitals, the Twin Cities and other areas in Greater Minnesota. In addition, patients from the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula have also been treated in Duluth.

“I think it’s hard to tell people that aren’t doing it every day exactly what it’s like," Baird said. "We’re starting to see a decline in ICU patients. Two or three weeks ago that was not the case. We were overflowing again. It’s hard to describe to somebody what it’s like.”

As of Wednesday, there were 21 COVID patients hospitalized at St. Luke's, four of whom were in the ICU and one who was on a ventilator. The ICU, which is spread across two floors, has 25 beds.

Swanson said the vast majority of COVID patients with critical or deadly symptoms are unvaccinated.

“I think anybody can look at any research and see that the people that are dying in ICUs are unvaccinated, and that’s just the pure, simple facts," she said. "So people should get vaccinated for themselves, their families and their community members. And I think this environment has made me feel really strongly about that.”

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