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Facing nursing shortage, NGHS has offered signing bonuses, raised starting salaries by 21 percent
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Nurses and staff work in a dedicated COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit on the fifth floor of Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville’s South Patient Tower. - photo by Northeast Georgia Health System

There are still hundreds of open nurse positions at Northeast Georgia Health System, and it has raised wages to try to remain competitive with other health systems and attract new workers.

“To ensure that compensation at NGHS remains competitive, our team annually evaluates all salaries,” Laura Hays, executive director of human resources, wrote in an email Thursday, Dec. 2. “This year, we made a significant adjustment to base compensation for nurses in August.”

Staff shortages have caused large pay increases across the country, and some health systems in Georgia added large signing bonuses earlier this year. Many nurses have left the profession during the pandemic because of an ongoing mental and emotional toll, hospital officials have said. 

NGHS is offering a $10,000 signing bonus for some nurse positions, Hays wrote. The starting salary for nurses has increased 21% from December 2019 to December 2021, and the average salary across all years of experience has increased about 19% in the same time span, she wrote. 

“To ensure that compensation at NGHS remains competitive, our team annually evaluates all salaries. This year, we made a significant adjustment to base compensation for nurses in August,” Hays wrote. 

NGHS officials declined to provide specific compensation figures. 

In August, NGHS was seeking 510 nurses while COVID-19 cases, fueled by the delta variant, were rising and the health system was overwhelmed with patients. As of Dec. 2, NGHS is still seeking about 400 nurses, and it now has about 400 travel nurses filling in. At the height of the delta wave in September, NGHS had more than 550 travel nurses, Hays wrote.

When fully staffed, NGHS has about 3,200 nursing positions across its four hospitals.

The health system does not pay travel nurses directly, but must pay the nurses’ agencies, and those fees have significantly increased over the past two years as the national nursing shortage has worsened.

“From December 2019 to December 2021, the agency fees for travel nurses working in our medical and surgical units have more than doubled – increasing by 106%,” Hays wrote. “For specialty nurses needed in our emergency departments and critical care units, the fees increased by roughly 130%.”

In August and September, NGHS significantly increased its number of beds to accommodate a huge influx of patients, going from about 726 staffed beds for most of the summer up to as many as 853 staffed beds.

COVID-19 cases have dropped since September when there was a peak of 333 COVID-19 positive patients in the health system, according to NGHS data. As of Dec. 2, there were 56 such patients. There have been 338 COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks, according to Dept. of Public Health data

Case numbers have remained relatively flat the past month, DPH data show. 

Only 45% of Hall County’s population has been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Dec. 2, and 51% of the state’s population has been vaccinated.