INDIANAPOLIS — Even as COVID-19 cases drop to the lowest levels since the summer, it will take the health care industry years to build staffing back up to where it was before the pandemic.

Eskenazi Health is working to bring staffing back up to pre-pandemic levels with virtual recruitment events.

”We’re looking to hire at least 100 nurses by May and June,” said Lee Ann Blue, Eskenazi Health’s chief nursing officer. ”That’s about 10% of our workforce.”

Blue said the first virtual recruitment event on Monday attracted almost 50 interested nursing candidates, even more than they expected.

”There is a lot of interest in looking for jobs and there are just a lot of jobs right now,” Blue said.

Indiana Hospital Association President Brian Tabor said that’s the way it is across the state right now.

”We’re seeing ten times the open positions for nurses right now than we saw before the pandemic,” he said.

Tabor said, industry wide, there are plenty of openings, but not enough people to fill them.

”We have some of our larger hospital systems who could probably hire the entire classes of graduating nurses from all of our Indiana colleges and universities,” Tabor said.

This is an issue that will take years, not months, to fix. Tabor said pandemic burnout, lucrative travel nursing contracts and sped-up retirement plans all contribute to the shortage.

”They’re just physically tired, emotionally drained,” Tabor said.

At Johnson Memorial Health, President and CEO Dr. David Dunkle said the shortage is pitting hospitals against each other.

”Hospitals have had to scramble and we’re unfortunately competing against each other most of the time,” Dunkle said. “Who’s going to offer the best hourly rates? Who’s going to have the most benefits?”

Dunkle said the pandemic has also been a rollercoaster for nurses, going from heroes to the people in the center of the controversial pandemic.

“I’ve seen it, they were heroes when it started and, to be honest with you, I have seen nurses treated more poorly than any time in my career,” Dunkle said.

He said he’s noticed patients’ families treating nurses with increasing levels of disrespect as the pandemic has gone on.

”They’re just not treating people with the grace and respect they deserve to be treated with.”

At Eskenazi, Blue said the biggest drain on her staff has been travel nursing agencies.

”That’s probably been our number one reason in 2021 for people leaving,” Blue said.

But she said they’re already seeing people return from those contracts. The hope for all hospitals is that the people who took breaks from the industry or travel contracts will come back home as the pandemic eases.

As for the next generation, Tabor said interest is still high, even after what the pandemic has put the nursing industry through.

“We have seen applications to our nursing programs not drop off at all. In fact, they have increased,” Tabor said.

For those nurses getting ready to graduate and enter the workforce, Blue said the industry is ready and waiting.

”They can do whatever they want to do,” she said. “The opportunities are phenomenal.”

Eskenazi Health will have its next virtual recruitment event on Wednesday, March 2. If you’re interested, you can register at this link.