Coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccinations: On the front lines, travel nurses say they’re being kept in the dark on vaccines

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Traveling nurse companies have stayed busy this year. Across the country, demand has skyrocketed for travel nurses in hospitals as healthcare facilities face decreasing staff and increasing need as the pandemic drags on.

But despite the industry’s runaway success, travel nurses who spoke to ClearHealthCosts said that they have been excluded from vaccination lists from the hospitals they’re assigned to – and haven’t had help from their agencies in figuring out how and where to get vaccinated. They say they’ve had to fight to figure it out themselves.

WORKING ON THE FRONT LINES – AND STRUGGLING TO GET VACCINATED

A nurse who lives in Iowa began her career as a travel nurse at the beginning of last year. (She spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve her job.) Her first assignment, at a hospital in Washington state, was nothing like she’d expected.

“I had already signed this contract, got all the paperwork done,” the nurse said in a phone interview. “Then, I’m seeing these news articles about this hospital outside Seattle having the first Coronavirus patients in the whole country. I was like…wait, that sounds really familiar.”

The hospital was where she was headed for her first travel assignment.

“I was like, oh, my word,” she said. “This is what am I leaving Iowa for right now – to go all the way to Seattle to literally ground zero.”

The Iowa nurse’s specialty is in medical surgical work, and her first post was supposed to be in one of those units. But when she got to Washington, she was thrown headfirst into pandemic care.

“The entire hospital, to be honest, was mostly Covid patients,” she said. “It was just like one big Covid ward.”

THIRD TRAVEL GIG, IN GEORGIA THIS TIME

Late last year, the Iowa nurse signed up for her third travel nursing gig at a Covid ward at Piedmont-Columbus Regional Hospital, one of Georgia’s largest nonprofit hospitals and part of the state’s Piedmont chain of hospitals. She was initially wary, she said, of signing up for a Covid ward because of her experiences in Seattle.

“I was like, I don’t know if I’m mentally prepared to put myself in that situation,” she said.

Fortunately, she thought, the vaccine had arrived just in time. The Iowa nurse received her first shot of the Moderna vaccine in December at a hospital where she works when she’s not on her traveling contracts.

But in trying to navigate her second shot, required by the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine protocols, she ran into a problem plaguing travel nurses across the country: she wasn’t on the list of people to vaccinate. The Iowa nurse said that her supervisor at Piedmont-Columbus Regional, the hospital in Georgia where she is slated to begin working in January, told her that they were offering the vaccine to travel nurses only on a lottery basis – despite, she said, staffing most of their Covid wards with travelers. (Piedmont-Columbus Regional did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

“I was just like, this just seems like negligence and unethical,” she said.

This nurse isn’t alone. Travel nurses across the country are reporting that they’re having trouble getting vaccinated at their assigned hospitals. In an informal poll conducted on a travel nursing forum on Reddit in December, 22 out of 64 respondents – more than a third – said that their current assignments were not vaccinating travelers.

‘FELT KIND OF HELPLESS’

Nurses interviewed on Reddit shared similar stories.

“I’ve felt kind of helpless,” one nurse based in Texas wrote. “I initially reached out to my manager December 12th because I noticed my full time coworkers were getting emails asking if they wanted the vaccine, and I hadn’t received any email regarding it. She said that travelers were not receiving it on the first round …I [have since] got word that the hospital is now going to start vaccinating travelers, but I haven’t received any information about the logistics.”

Other Redditors have successfully gotten the vaccine, but not after significant effort on their part fighting with their travel agencies, hospitals and local health authorities.

“I’ve been working exclusively covid icu [sic] since March, so have been very anxiously awaiting this day,” a nurse based in Florida wrote.“I had heard from a friend in a closely neighboring state that she was already schedule[d] to receive it the first week of rollout – but she isn’t a covid icu nurse. I was confused and curious how a hospital 60 miles away already had people scheduled when I hadn’t heard a single thing.

“First day of official rollout and within the same 24 hours we get a ‘be patient we’re working on organizing distribution’ to then getting the hospitals like promo email of events in the system highlighting the first vaccines being administered… I was totally furious.

“Then I went on break for Christmas (travelers can’t access work email from home)…I was definitely going crazy thinking about the possibilities of delay and considering if I would even go on contract again until I got one. So as I was stewing at home over break I got in contact with the health department after getting an email saying I would be eligible to get it, then their command center operators said otherwise (that was the day of the moderna rollout) Then I received an email 3 days later with a link to sign up. It was too late, I had already had to return to my assignment location 8 hours away. Furious again lol.

“When I was out of town, my friend who worked at another hospital in the same system was told travelers were going to be in line after full time staff. When I returned, I was able to learn that staff had received email links to sign up. I then had to reach out to our manager to receive it…

“Essentially for me, it was like a two and a half week long disaster until I was finally able to get it…. I am so lucky and thankful it panned out because I know it hasn’t yet for so many others. But yeah, I would say pretty poor coordination on just about all fronts in my experience.”

TRAVEL AGENCIES STAY QUIET ON VACCINATIONS

While she struggled with her assigned hospital, the agency that set up the Iowa nurse’s contract was not offering helpful solutions either. The nurse said that before she asked about her options, the agency, Health Providers Choice, hadn’t communicated anything to their nurses about how to obtain the vaccine. (Health Providers Choice did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

After she asked her agency what to do, the nurse said, her recruiter encouraged her to fly back to Iowa mid-contract – while she’s working in the Covid wards – to get her second vaccine booster rather than push her start day at the hospital back a few weeks.

“I don’t really want to be on a plane with anyone” after working in a Covid ward, she said. “That’s exactly what I told my recruiter – this doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel responsible.”

Other nurses reached on Reddit say that their agencies have also deferred decisions to the hospital and been unhelpful in setting up vaccinations.

“I asked my recruiter, and she initially said the vaccine was being offered to travelers based on the hospital,” the travel nurse in Texas, whose contract is with Aya Healthcare, wrote. Aya, one of the largest travel nursing companies in the country, said in December that it had posted 222 percent more travel nurse positions than at the same time in 2019; the company did not respond to requests for comment on its vaccine policies.

PENALTIES FOR CANCELING A CONTRACT

The Iowa nurse explained that travel nurses who feel uncomfortable with their facility’s policy on vaccinations may face backlash.

“If a traveler cancels a contract, they put themselves pretty much on the blacklist for that entire host and any of their affiliates,” she said. “Your travel agency might choose not to work with you in the future. It really burns a lot of bridges.”

Fortunately, the Iowa nurse reached a solution with her hospital before she was forced to make a difficult decision. After weeks of back-and-forth with her recruiter and nursing supervisor, she was informed that she would be able to get her second shot when she arrives in Georgia. But she says she knows other traveling nurses are still in limbo.

“I have another friend who is en route now to go to [a traveling nurse job] in Portland,” she said. “She doesn’t have the luxury of having a permanent job somewhere like I do to get the vaccine. She has no idea if the hospital she’s going to is going to vaccinate travelers or not.”

And the weeks of headache over coordinating her vaccine, she said, communicated a tough message: “It just [made] me feel like they think I’m dispensable or not worthy of a vaccination.”