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Nurses call on UPMC to resolve a 'staffing crisis' at its Altoona hospital

UPMC nurses from Altoona and Shadyside stood together downtown Wednesday to call for improved staffing levels and wages at UPMC Altoona.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
UPMC nurses from Altoona and Shadyside stood together downtown Wednesday to call for improved staffing levels and wages at UPMC Altoona.

Nurses from UPMC Altoona are in Pittsburgh Wednesday to protest what they describe as a “growing care crisis” at the hospital. A dozen nurses say they'll stand outside of UPMC’s Downtown Pittsburgh headquarters for 24 hours, symbolizing the average emergency room wait time at UPMC Altoona.

Sandy Wagner, a nurse in the hospital's intensive care unit, said some patients have recently waited more than 50 hours for an emergency room bed, a claim UPMC denies. Wagner blames critically low staffing levels and workers leaving due to low pay for the long waits.

“I have seen countless nurses leave UPMC Altoona, unwilling to put up with the low salaries, uncooperative management and unreasonable work assignments,” she said. “They take years of experience and dedication with them and it’s ultimately our patients who suffer.”

The nurses are calling on the health care system to ensure safe nurse-to-patient ratios, better pay and retention bonuses to keep full-time registered nurses in their community.

A UPMC spokesperson admitted the system has seen higher demands for care.

“The fact that other hospitals in the region are diverting their patients in need of emergency care directly to UPMC hospitals, we are experiencing longer delays and we often use all of our space to provide care,” a statement reads.

But UPMC contested claims of 24-50 hour wait times at UPMC Altoona.

“We do not have any reports of 50-hour wait times to start care or even a 24-hour interval to begin care at the UPMC Altoona emergency department or at any of our hospital emergency departments,” the statement reads. “The demand for emergent and other necessary health care services is a nationwide issue that has grown dramatically over last few months for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 related care.”

Wagner said Altoona has had the highest rate of COVID-19 patients of all hospitals across the UPMC system due to the low vaccination rate among Blair County residents.

“Our COVID patients are extending over into some of the other ICUs… and then there are a lot of COVID patients on our other floors that aren’t requiring ICU care,” Wagner said.

While nurses across the country have been sounding the alarm about untenable working conditions throughout the pandemic, Wagner and Leann Oppell, a surgery nurse, argue the staffing crisis in Altoona began long before the pandemic skyrocketed patient levels and stretched resources.

“The global health crisis blew the lid off of a long simmering problem,” Oppell said. “The combination of low wages, chronic understaffing and lack of respect from management has led to this downturn. All of which are in UPMC’s control.”

Oppell said her unit has historically had 45 full-time registered nurses but the number has dwindled to 12.

They claim UPMC relies on travel nurses to keep rural hospitals running. Travel nurses are often paid a higher wage than similar hospital personnel because they are assigned to manage staffing shortages.

The nurses pointed to UPMC’s record-high profits during the pandemic and a $67 million dollar windfall from the American Rescue Plan as resources that should be used to help hospitals like Altoona.

“The nurses would definitely come when you know you’re going to have a manageable assignment,” Wagner said. “There’s not a shortage of nurses… there’s just a shortage of nurses who want to work under those conditions.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.