California nurses struggle as nurse-to-patient ratios stretched amid COVID-19 surge

California is currently the only state with a nurse-to-patient ratio law, but a spike in COVID-19 patients led Gov. Gavin Newsom to relax the law earlier this month. Now, nurses are scrambling to care for more patients, reports NPR. 

Since Mr. Newsom gave hospitals the option to increase the number of patients per nurse, 170 hospitals have implemented the changes. New pandemic ratios allow intensive care unit nurses to care for three patients instead of two; emergency room and telemetry nurses can care for six patients instead of four; and medical-surgical nurses are permitted to care for seven patients instead of five. 

"We are given 50 percent more patients and we're expected to do 50 percent more things with the same amount of time," Nerissa Black, RN, a telemetry nurse at Valencia, Calif.-based Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, told NPR. "I go home and I feel like I could have done more. I don't feel like I'm giving the care to my patients like a human being deserves." 

Some nurses are worried the current nurse-to-patient-ratios will become permanent, though experts told NPR there likely wouldn't be enough support for such a measure. 

California has exhausted strategies attempting to improve its medical staffing capacity amid the pandemic, including asking the federal government to send medical personnel and working with staffing agencies to contract travel nurses, said Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the state's hospital association.  

"Because California surged during the summer and other parts of the U.S. then surged afterwards, those travel nurses are [now] taken," she said.

The state is currently facing its worst virus surge yet, with some hospitals reporting little to no ICU beds, and low supplies of oxygen and plastic tubes needed to deliver oxygen to patients, The Los Angeles Times reports. In some areas, patients are waiting up to eight hours in ambulances before they're allowed to enter the emergency rooms. 

As of Dec. 27, 20,059 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in California, according to data from The Atlantic's COVID-19 Tracking Project.

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