20211230-LOC-Nurse Filer

COVID-19 Testing Nurse Manager Tracy Turcotte of Stoddard stands at the Cheshire Medical Center testing site in September. The state announced Wednesday that it licensed 658 new people to practice as nurses in the first three weeks of this month, but officials at the Keene hospital say they still need more.

The state announced Wednesday that it licensed 658 new people to practice as nurses in the first three weeks of this month as it works to reduce a labor shortage that limits capacity for treating a surge of COVID-19 patients.

But while the infusion of nurses is welcome, many more are needed, local health officials say.

“More rapid processing of temporary licensure has been helpful,” said Amy Matthews, chief nursing officer at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene. “It has not had a significant impact on the overall deficit of staff to [handle] increased needs for complex in-patient care.”

The Dartmouth-Hitchcock affiliate reported that as of Tuesday morning it had 27 COVID-19 patients, the most since the pandemic began. Nine were on ventilators.

The granting of temporary nursing licenses to qualified people, including nurses with licenses in good standing from other states, is one way the state is working to reduce the workforce shortage.

Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order on Nov. 23 that called for streamlined regulatory procedures to boost the number of available nurses.

“We are breaking down barriers to ensure our health care system has the staffing needed to respond to this winter surge, and I would like to thank OPLC (Office of Professional Licensure and Certification) for their expedited work in helping get nurses on the front lines of our hospitals,” Sununu said in a statement.

Matthews said representatives from the licensure office and the state Board of Nursing met with hospital chief nursing officers statewide several times this month to solve problems and keep lines of communication open.

She said the medical center employs about 500 nurses. It has openings for 48 registered nurses and nine licensed practical nurses. The state has 20,548 RNs and 3,388 LPNs, according to nursinglicensure.org, which lists state-by-state nursing requirements. But it’s not clear exactly how many more nurses New Hampshire needs.

Workforce shortages in health care and other fields predated the pandemic.

Matthews and Dr. Don Caruso, president and CEO of the medical center, said systemic changes are needed to boost the number of health care workers in New Hampshire over the long term.

Investment in entry-level training programs and nursing schools would be helpful, Matthews said.

“Early information to students and parents about the value and wide range of career opportunities in healthcare is important,” she said in an email. “Funding to help New Hampshire youth attain education in healthcare professions and stay in New Hampshire is also important.”

A lack of affordable housing and public transportation also serves as a disincentive for healthcare professionals to come to New Hampshire or stay here, Matthews said.

“Investing in programs to support healthcare workers for retention at this time of high stress, burnout, and moral distress is also needed,” she said. “Improved safety for healthcare workers is also important.”

Caruso said the state needs to provide better incentives for graduating health care students to stay in the state.

“The other thing that would help is if the state improved its Medicaid funding,” he said. “Institutions and practices could then pay their medical professionals a more competitive wage.”

Rick Green can be reached at RGreen@KeeneSentinel.com or 603-355-8567.