The coronavirus pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of positions for nurses unfilled, and experts say the effects on the workforce will last for at least a decade.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, about 203,200 positions for registered nurses are projected to open each year until 2031. These openings will increase because of the need to replace the nurses leaving the workforce.

Many nurses are retiring due to stress felt from working during the pandemic. Kari Warner is a nursing supervisor at Honorhealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center for 64 beds and a COVID-19 unit. She has seen firsthand how COVID has diminished the nursing workforce.

“We’ve had a couple surges of COVID over the past two and a half years, and after the third surge, a lot of my longtime nurses that had no intent to leave bedside were so burnt out they wanted to leave, and they have,” Warner said. “I’ve had a significant amount of turnover, and then our new grad nurses that are coming in because of COVID didn’t have the clinical training in the hospital, so when they’re starting with us, they’re starting from scratch.”

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It’s not only longtime nurses that are retiring from the industry. Some nurses are changing professions and leaving healthcare altogether. Gretchen Turner is a telemetry technician at Honorhealth and has seen many of her colleagues’ career paths altered by the pandemic.

“There are a lot of nurses who have left the profession because of COVID. It’s incredibly stressful, especially when the hospitals are overwhelmed with a lot of COVID patients or short staffed,” Turner said. “Some nurses I know have gone to do esthetician; they’ll do botox injections. Somebody I knew went to become a teacher. Another one went into securities, helping people invest their money, going into real estate. Just complete-180s from nursing.”

Nurse turnover is a trend that has started to increase since the pandemic. Sandy Mazzio is the director of nursing for a 64-bed unit and a COVID-19 unit at Honorhealth, and she has seen a lot of employee turnover over the past two and a half years.

“People don’t stay in one place very long anymore. The average amount of time I keep a nurse is about 18 months before they move on to something else,” Mazzio said. “And that’s been a really big trend; a very few handful of people now work on the same floor for more than two years.”

Compounding the turnover problem is the lack of nurses coming into the workforce with proper training to mitigate the number of nurses leaving. Warner is worried about whether or not new nurses are experienced enough to be prepared to work in hospitals.

“I have, for example, a new grad nurse that just graduated nursing school who’s already enrolled in her doctorate program to be nurse practitioner without any clinical knowledge,” Warner said. “She’s going from being a novice with no experience as a nurse to joining to be a practitioner with no experience under her belt. That’s terrifying.”

Unfortunately, no apparent solutions are currently being implemented to alleviate the shortage. Neither Warner, Mazzio or Turner know if or how the situation will improve.

“Nurses are on the frontlines, they’re in the trenches, and they’re heroes. And I would hope that a lot of the public would feel that way, but I don’t know if a lot of people not involved with healthcare realize that,” Turner said. “They’re vital to society, and if we keep losing more of them, we’re in trouble.”