Healthcare Travel in the Time of COVID-19

By Aaron Highfill, RN

It would not be an overstatement to say that like many other industries, the healthcare industry has been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic.  This chaos seems especially apparent among traveling healthcare professionals.  It seems counterintuitive that in a global pandemic, traveling healthcare professionals might have difficulty finding employment, but it happened. 

A traveler scrolling social media this spring would see posts offering extremely high “crisis rate” wages and rapid starts for some specialties. Alongside these posts were others from travelers reporting canceled contracts and asking for tips on filing for unemployment.  It was certainly an odd time to be a healthcare provider.  Companies as diverse as ski resorts, airlines, and footwear were suddenly offering large discounts to employess with your hospital ID. Meanwhile, the hospitals themselves were requiring you to conserve and reuse your PPE.

We are now six months into the pandemic and while no one would describe life as routine. Some of the chaos has settled into a certain rhythm. At least as much of a rhythm as is possible for a lifestyle that involved large scale personal and professional upheaval several times a year BEFORE the pandemic hit. Some travel healthcare specialties that saw widespread slowdowns in the spring are again recruiting travelers. Some specialties are still clawing their way out of the basement. The Travelers Conference was canceled, but we all have big plans to make up for a lost time in 2021.

In even the worst of circumstances, new opportunities will eventually emerge though.  Who better than traveling healthcare providers to seize these opportunities as they arise? Traveling healthcare professionals have been highlighted in many major news publications! Major news organizations have run features on travelers who move from one COVID-19 hotspot to the next, raising awareness of a professional lifestyle many may not have known about.

Travelers Filling New Needs

Travelers are now being tasked with unusual assignments. Such as supervising teams of contact tracers and doing COVID-19 testing by inserting swabs up the noses of people sitting in their car at a drive-through testing center.  A friend working in one such testing center joked early on: “I went to college to get out of working at the drive-thru! Now, look where I am.”  

While early in the pandemic, hard-hit areas turned to field hospitals to provide care for those that needed it. That later settled into COVID-19 specific Intensive Care Units. The state of Minnesota repurposed a former Long Term Acute Care Hospital (LTACH) to be an entire hospital just for Covid-19 patients.  M-Health Fairview-Bethesda Hospital, in St. Paul Minnesota was converted in just five days! The hospital has since treated hundreds of COVID-19 patients.

Interview with Gerri, a COVID Hospital Travel Nurse

To find out more about this facility and what it’s like for a traveling healthcare professional to work there, I reached out to Gerri Spidle RN.  Gerri is a frequent Travelers Conference attendee! She is an experienced traveling ICU nurse who has sought adventure in the far corners of the globe both during and between travel contracts.  She started a travel contract at this specialty facility in early April of 2020 after it had been open just two weeks. I spoke with her about working in one of the nation’s few Covid-19 only facilities. I’ve edited our conversation for clarity and added pictures of her pre-COVID world wide travels!

a women holding a flag in the snow

Aaron: Experienced travelers are well aware that satisfaction with a contract is often related to the chemistry a traveler has with their new colleagues. What was it like starting a contract at a facility so new, where the culture hadn’t yet been established?

Gerri: Well it was only two weeks old, so there were a lot of opportunities to build new relationships!  Initially, about 1/3 of the staff came from within the M-Health Fairview system and 2/3 were travelers. At that time, there were only two agencies that were staffing the hospital, so there was definitely a bit of a rivalry, a certain amount of US VS THEM.  That has eased as both the percentage of travelers and the number of agencies staffing them has grown. Now, there are 6-8 staffing agencies represented and things like housing stipends are now fairly standardized. All in all, a good group of people to work with.

Aaron:  You often work in burn care and other ICU settings. What’s it like working at such a specialized facility as this?

a women holding a koala

Gerri: It’s a good place to work. There are certainly challenges! It is an old building and was so quickly converted, equipment isn’t necessarily uniform throughout the facility. There are 3 ICUs with 12 beds each.  A cable from a monitor in one unit might not work with a monitor in another unit.  All of our ICU rooms have been set up to be negative pressure rooms though.  It’s different than most regular ICUs because everybody has COVID. A positive nasal swab is required for admission. Even though our census is down slightly right now, we remain fully staffed for an anticipated surge as winter and flu season approaches, so get your flu shot!

Aaron: I’ll get a flu shot, Gerri, thanks for that reminder!   How has the care for COVID-19 evolved in the five months you’ve been there?

Gerri: It has definitely changed. Initially, people were intubated more often. While we still have to intubate some people and put them on the ventilator, there is the increased use of interventions such as high flow nasal cannula that we use to try and keep them off the ventilator.  There has been some progress, more people are surviving now, but unfortunately, some are still passing away. As elsewhere, there is still a disproportionate burden among the minority communities. It’s been pretty exciting to be a part of the ongoing research into effective treatments though. We’ve had trials here including Azithromycin, Losartan, Remdesivir, and Convalescent plasma. 

Aaron: That does sound exciting. You’ve already extended there once. What’s next?

Gerri: I’m going to stay through the end of the year. It’s a good place to work and it’s financially rewarding as well.

Aaron:  Thank you, Gerri, Glad to hear you’re enjoying your contract there. Stay safe!

What about our TravCon Blog readers:  What are your experiences working during the pandemic?

Aaron Highfill headshot

About the Author: Aaron Highfill is an RN specializing in long-range aeromedical transport. He became an EMT in 1996 and an RN in 2006. He was a traveling ER nurse in The Virgin Islands, California, and New England before deciding that 13-week contracts weren’t mobile enough. He’s worked for a cruise line and in the relief and development sectors. He now enjoys the logistical and clinical challenges associated with being a flight nurse for Airmed International.

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