Nurses are facing an unprecedented staffing shortage, which could affect every Oregonian.

With every COVID-19 surge, hospital executives wrung their hands over dwindling hospital bed numbers. As a direct care nurse, I worried too. I warned my family and friends to stay safe and stay out of the hospital because I knew how dire things were.

But my primary concern wasn't and isn't bed numbers, it's the dwindling number of skilled nurses at patients' bedside. GAPPER

Beds are tracked because they're easy to count, but during COVID-19 nurses have treated patients in waiting room chairs and hallways — even in elevators. The truth is Oregon's health care system doesn't rely on hospital beds, it's built on the backs of frontline health care professionals working at the bedside — primarily nurses, who outnumber doctors in Oregon 3-to-1 and who are the largest group of health care professionals in the United States.

When Oregonians don't receive health care, get less care or receive lower-quality care, it's usually because of a lack of nurses. And our nurse numbers should worry us all.

By December, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says Americans will be short 1.1 million nurses. Oregon is facing the same shortfall. This staffing crisis didn't happen overnight and it will take time to resolve. But we can start laying the groundwork by passing Oregon House Bill 4003.

This critical bill, sponsored by state Rep. Rachel Prusak, includes innovative workforce solutions like expanding the Oregon Wellness Program. This program already offers free mental health support for Oregon doctors, dentists, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners. Allowing registered nurses to access it too will help retain current nurses by giving them tools and support to cope with health care's unique challenges and continue caring for their communities.

The bill also creates a nurse internship program to augment the current work force and give nursing students practical experience, offers out-of-state nurses more time to work in Oregon before committing to move here and commissions a study to identify other long-term solutions to Oregon's nursing shortage.

These changes will make a difference, but we can't legislate our way out of our nurse staffing crisis. Oregon's hospitals need to do their part too.

Throughout the pandemic, hospital executives have called local nurses heroes while paying substitute traveling nurses three to four times more. In fact, most haven't lifted a finger to meaningfully improve pay or benefits for permanent, local staff.

The frontline nurses lauded in hospital press releases are being left out in the cold. Are we surprised a nurse might be tempted to travel somewhere where hospital executives show they value them?

Nonprofit hospitals have a responsibility to invest in local communities and offer fair wages and benefits to help recruit and retain the nurses Oregonians rely on. Anything less is a dangerous risk to all Oregonians' safety.

There's a lot the Legislature can do to address Oregon's long-term nurse staffing crisis, but we need hospitals to show they value the knowledge, expertise and skills Oregon's nurses bring to the bedside today so we can continue providing outstanding care for our communities during and after COVID-19.

Stephanie Gapper is an Oregon Nurses Association member and a registered nurse at Oregon Health & Sciences University Hospital in an ambulatory specialty clinic. She is a member of ONA's cabinet on health policy, which establishes ONA's legislative priorities, researches health care issues and develops positions on labor and health policy.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.

Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!