By Frank Long, MS, Editorial Director

Nursing salaries are having their moment. As the nation battles through the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses who are willing to travel to understaffed COVID-19 hot spots and jump into hands-on patient care are being handsomely rewarded for their work.

How Handsome?

The level of compensation is being driven by what could be called “surge pricing,” and includes factors such nurse availability, attrition, and the affluence of a particular location. According to an NCB News report on Nov. 24, those rewards are running as high as $8,000 per week. In some cases, more.

A nurse who could maintain that salary over the course of a year would collect $416,000. The risk of working in a COVID-19 ward is not unlike having lunch each day at the far end of shooting range. However, there are some who are willing to take the risk.

For comparison, consider that at this rate RNs are crushing the average annual salaries of attorneys ($144,230), airline pilots ($146,660), and even the best PTs at the Mayo Clinic.

At $8,000 per week, nurses could afford to hire anesthesiologists ($267,020) to park their cars.

But When It’s Bad It’s Deadly

Staffing companies reportedly are matching well-paying COVID-19 work with traveling nurses in locations around the globe. And while there are opportunities to care for COVID-19 patients in tropical locales such as Bermuda, the work itself is not all sunshine and coconuts. There is, in fact, plenty of cold water to be thrown on the party; some of it reported recently by the union National Nurses United (NNU).

In its Sept. 16 report titled Sins of Omission, the union estimated at least 213 registered nurses in the United States had died from COVID-19 and related complications, while more than 1,718 of the country’s healthcare workers had died because of the same causes.

Worldwide, at least 1,500 nurses have died from COVID-19, according to an Oct. 28 report from the International Council of Nurses.

The “surge pricing” has created intense competition for nurses among healthcare facilities. Predictably, hospitals in high-income areas have the deep pockets to pay high salaries that keep nursing departments staffed. Underserved and rural hospitals are not positioned to afford such luxuries and, as a result, are faced with hard choices.

Hot, Hot, Hot

Autumn weather triggered a new wave of COVID-19 infections and as a result, “hot spots” continue to form across the nation. With hospital admissions swelling, temporary or traveling nurses are the only option some facilities have to scale up and meet the needs of their inpatient load. That need is likely to linger since widespread vaccinations will need several more months to begin effectively arresting the spread of the virus.

Until then, organizations such as Krucial Staffing, Overland Park, Kan., will continue to deploy nurses to do dangerous work wherever they are needed—for a price.

“Right now we’re at our highest volume we’ve been,” says Krucial Staffing chief executive officer, Brian Cleary, who notes that during Halloween weekend approximately 1,000 nurses joined the company’s roster of “reservists.”

Cleary explains that with a base rate of $95 per hour, some nurses can work overtime and earn as much as $10,000 in a week — a figure that begins to approach the $610,000 annual base earnings of an NFL player.

A Hidden Cost

On the down side, traveling nurses typically pay the cost of their own healthcare insurance. In some cases, nurses will be saddled with the cost of therapy to deal with the experience.

“How your soul is affected by [COVID-19 patient care] is nothing you can put a price on,” says Amber Hazard, a Texas-based nurse who has worked as a traveling ICU nurse.

The effect on a soul is recounted by Claire Tripeny, a nurse who did hospital-based ICU work prior to the pandemic. Since then, she has since worked as a traveling nurse in New Jersey and Kentucky. During her work in New Jersey, Tripeny sometimes was unable to provide the care a patient needed, which was difficult for her. Worse, perhaps, was pulling a deceased patient off a ventilator and removing tubes from the lungs that were filled with blackened blood.

How did she cope?

“I would just look at my paycheck and be like, ‘OK. This is OK. I can do this.”

Tripeny says she pays for her own mental health therapy out of her own pocket these days — a perk she used to receive for free as hospital staff.

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