PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As hospitals around the state deal with staffing issues that have closed some urgent care facilities, the Oregon Nurses Association spoke to the press on Thursday — explaining this crisis is a long time coming.

ONA president Lynda Pond, ONA Nurse Practice Consultant Matt Calzia and ONA Board of Directors member Natasha Schwartz all spoke at the press conference. Each of them reiterated the fact that this nurse shortage did not spring up solely due to the looming COVID-19 vaccination deadline, but is the result of decades-long decision-making by hospital executives that continuously placed profits over patients.

“This has been a very, very difficult time for all nurses in Oregon,” ONA President Lynda Pond began. She says ONA knows the vast majority of nurses in the state are vaccinated — however, the purpose of Thursday’s press conference is not to discuss what happens on the October 18 deadline, but about what the state must do to “finally and seriously address our historic and catastrophic nurse staffing crisis.”

Thursday’s speakers all said this staffing crisis is the culmination of a healthcare system that has been broken for years and are now calling on hospitals and the state government for help. To move forward, the ONA believes attention should be focused on two key areas: retention of nursing staff and addressing the challenges in the nursing workforce pipeline.

“The current nursing crisis the state of Oregon is facing… has been decades in the making,” Schwartz explained. “As we see a small number of nurses potentially leave the profession due to their decision to decline the vaccination, we are also concerned burnout will lead to an ever-larger number of nurses leaving the bedside — and in Oregon, we will not be able to educate a large enough number of nurses to replace them.”

Schwartz spoke to the larger issues within the workforce pipeline, including wage disparity and placement within the field. She said the ONA is calling on the state to create crucial scholarships, targeted specifically at students of color, bilingual students and students from rural areas — all of which are underrepresented in Oregon’s workforce.

She says they are also asking for the legislature to investigate the creation of an Oregon Nurse Corps that would provide student loan forgiveness for nursing students who agree to complete four years of work in areas of the state with the most serious nursing shortages.

Calzia said for patients and frontline nurses, Oregon’s healthcare system has been broken for a long time and all their pleas for changes have been ignored by hospital executives for decades.

“To move beyond the current crisis, if we are to not only improve our system but literally save it, Oregon must take bold, decisive and immediate action,” Calzia said. “We don’t have all the answers, but we are looking at a range of options and we strongly encourage our elected officials, hospital administrators, coordinated care insurance organizations and public sector agencies to accept our challenge to think big and bold — the future of Oregon’s healthcare system depends on it.”

Calzia said ONA wants hospitals to pause their plans of rapidly returning to a high-productivity, business-as-usual model of operation — highlighting what they see as missteps by the Oregon Health and Science University.

“OHSU provides an example of what not to do in response to the ongoing crisis,” Calzia said. “Eighty-five percent of the nurses at OHSU have indicated they are unable to use vacation time or take a mental health day because there are not enough nurses. Ninety-two percent of OHSU nurses are experiencing mental exhaustion, 86% report experiencing fatigue, burnout and moral distress… And perhaps the most concerning number — 60% of OHSU nurses indicate they are considering leaving the profession entirely.”

Despite these numbers, Calzia said OHSU has sent emails to nursing staff within the last week saying they intend to keep this pace up.

Calzia says hospitals never adequately dealt with nurse burnout from the beginning of the pandemic. Now after going through numerous surges, nurses are feeling it more than ever.

ONA urges hospitals to honor legally required meal and rest breaks for nurses and immediately put an end to all buddy-break system practices. Calzia says if many nurses work 12-hour shifts without any rest — and if someone does want a rest break, they must pass all their patients onto another nurse, essentially doubling that person’s workload.

There are several other issues the ONA urges be addressed. One of which involves hospitals’ reliance on traveling nurses — who are always appreciated but simply do not put an end to Oregon’s longtime nurse shortage or retention.

They are calling on hospitals and state legislators to invest more towards nurses’ mental health, including investing in destigmatizing the suffering nurses go through. Calzia says we must acknowledge burnout and fatigue are symptoms of a failed system — not a failed or weak nurse. To help, hospitals must provide proper mental health services, including direct financial support to bolster staffing and ensure adequate counseling is available.

The ONA is requesting the Oregon legislature to invest approximately $1.8 million bi-annually into an expansion of the Oregon Wellness Program to help reach these goals.

The ONA also calls on Governor Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority to create a commission to engage in a systemic review of Oregon’s overall healthcare system staffing. The hope is this commission would have a specific focus on assessing the state’s hospital staffing model and would provide recommendations on how best to strengthen staffing across all aspects of healthcare, whether it be hospitals, clinics or elsewhere.

“If there’s a single takeaway from our discussion today, I hope it’s this: the nurse staffing crisis did not start with COVID-19 or with vaccine mandates,” Pond concluded. “It was created and compounded by hospital executives who have consistently chosen to put profit ahead of patients. It’s why we’re here today and why we’re facing a generational challenge to provide high-quality healthcare to people who need it. Nurses alone cannot solve the nursing crisis — because we did not create it.”

Last week, the ONA made it clear the vaccine mandate is one reason for the staffing issues at hospitals.

“We know that upwards of 90% of ONA members are vaccinated,” Pond said. “We also know, for example, that as many as 96% of nurses at OHSU are vaccinated. However, we know that a small amount of nurses across the state have made the decision to not get vaccinated and those nurses will likely be terminated from their jobs.”

Monday was the final day for certain workers in Oregon and Washington to get a COVID-19 vaccine and keep their jobs.

In both states, teachers and healthcare workers are required to be fully vaccinated by October 18. This means October 4 was the last day for individuals to either get their second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine — or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot — to be considered fully vaccinated in time.