ONA recommends “bold action” to tackle workforce shortages for after Oct. 18 COVID vaccine deadline


Patrick Jones


The Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) held a press conference on Thursday to discuss their suggestions to address the nurse workforce crisis after the Oct. 18 health care worker COVID-19 vaccination deadline. ONA highlights two specific areas in need of “bold action” — efforts to retain nursing staff and nurse education investments. 


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Health care professionals need to get their final dose of the vaccine on Monday — Oct. 4 — in order to comply with the Oct. 18 deadline. Lynda Pond, president of the ONA board of directors, said between 90%-95% of their members are fully vaccinated. However, the remaining nurses who are not vaccinated — and do not receive exceptions — will most likely be terminated.

Out of ONA’s 15,000 members, the 5%-10% who are not vaccinated are roughly 750-1,500 nurses. Hospitals have the option to place these nurses in settings where they do not come into contact with the patient, but most are not going to be making this accommodation. Pond says:

“It’s tiny, but it doesn’t matter. You lose a nurse at the bedside, you lose a nurse at the bedside and other people have to step in and fill that nurse’s shoes. Then it perpetuates that cycle continuously over time, and it leads to nurse exhaustion, mental health stress, and goes on and on and on.”

With this sharp decrease in the workforce looming, Matt Calzia, RN, nurse practice consultant with ONA, and Natasha Schwartz, ONA board member and nurse at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), discuss ways ONA believes the workforce shortage and nurse burnout can be mitigated. 

Calzia calls upon hospitals and the Oregon Legislature to help retain nurses through greater investments in nurses’ mental health, reform the “buddy break” system, and addressing the reliance on travel nurses

Calzia says health systems should provide direct financial support for nurses to cover private counselling sessions. He also called on the Oregon Legislature to expand the Oregon Wellness Program (OWP) to include a provision for mental health services. ONA wants to include $1.8 million biannually for this expansion. 

“There must be an investment in destigmatizing the suffering nurses are experiencing, acknowledging this is harm caused by a failed system — not a failure of the individual.”

The “buddy break” system essentially doubles nurses’ workload, says Calzia. The “buddy break” system partners nurses together to care for the other’s patients when they are on break. This system usually causes nurses to not take breaks since they do not want to double the workload of a colleague. Calzia says this leads to nurse fatigue and worse outcomes for patients. 

Schwartz calls upon hospitals and the legislature to increase nursing faculty salaries to mirror clinical salaries, explore more ways to address clinical placement challenges, and provide loan forgiveness for students who agree to work for four years in an area of great need. 

To address nursing faculty salaries, Schwartz suggests an act by the legislature to supplement wage increases as well as partnerships between health systems and nursing schools to provide direct salary payments to professors.

Schwartz says nursing programs need to explore more clinical placement options due to the shortage of these placements. Placement shortages lead to limited registration for the school which would reduce the workforce. She suggests implementing simulation-based learning, which the Oregon State Board of Nursing says can meet up to 49% of clinical education requirements.

Lastly, Schwartz suggests the legislature should create an Oregon Nurse Corps, which would provide loan forgiveness for students who work for four years in areas with the greatest nursing shortages. 

“The details of such an Oregon Nurse Corps would need much greater research, but this is an example of the kind of bold action we are seeking.” 

Pond says hospitals stretch their resources and hire fewer nurses to help their bottom line because it is cheaper for them. 

“Nurses have been demanding hospitals address short-staffing for years and hospital executives have ignored us. Because it’s cheaper to run LEAN, it’s cheaper to stretch the people and resources thin, it’s cheaper to hire one nurse to do the job of two to three nurses, than it is to hire two to three nurses to do the job right. When hospitals are short-staffed, you and your family members pay the price.”

ONA has not yet had conversations with the Governor’s office or the legislature, but plans to in the near future.