Facing a nursing shortage, Valley health experts gauge the post-pandemic landscape

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It’s no secret that there is often more work than hands at healthcare facilities across the nation, which the COVID-19 pandemic helped to further exploit in 2020, but nowhere was this more apparent at the time than in the nursing field.

Hospitals in South Texas were not the exception and served as perhaps the definitive example. The impact on Rio Grande Valley communities was particularly extreme as hospitals operated at overcapacity during the summer of 2020, with more than 4,000 lives and counting lost to the pandemic. At one point, refrigerated trucks parked outside these facilities to store the dead when space was scarce.

Nurses and doctors and other medical staff worked so diligently then to address the needs of a vulnerable population in the Valley — due largely to communities here long-struggling with comorbidities ranging from heart disease to diabetes — that they were recognized by The Monitor, Valley Morning Star and The Brownsville Herald as the area’s Citizens of the Year in 2020.

Three years later, medical professionals and educators are contending not only with a nursing shortage but a decline in enrollment at nursing schools in the state and nation — issues which are not mutually exclusive and are exacerbating each other.

And while representatives from the Valley’s healthcare institutions paint a more optimistic picture than what the rest of the country is experiencing, everyone seems to agree on at least one thing: The solution to the nursing shortage problem is education.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Nursing graduates somewhere between 90 and 100 undergraduate students and about 30 to 40 advanced program students every year.

To get into the program alone is a feat with only about 70 applicants accepted from a pool of usually 200 annually, according to the school’s interim dean, Dr. Lilia A. Fuentes.

In fact, the university and other schools in the U.S. have in recent years seen a decline in nursing applicants. This, she said, is an alarming trend as healthcare needs grow in the nation.

“It’s actually a nationwide concern that we are seeing a decrease in applications in the nursing profession across the nation,” Fuentes said. “There is a significant drop in nursing applications post COVID.”

According to a May 2 article by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, or the AACN, nursing schools saw a 1.4% decrease in the number of students in entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs, “ending a 20-year period of enrollment growth.”

The emergency room at South Texas Health System McAllen on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (Joel Martinez [email protected])

Foster said this waned once the stresses of the pandemic waned.

“As far as fatigue goes it’s 100% improved from what it was three years ago,” Foster said.

She also explained that STHS sees similar situations when Winter Texans travel south to the Rio Grande Valley, leading to hospitals seeing more patients, increasing the census by 25%.

Local hospital systems plan for this, however.

“When the Winter Texans come we definitely see an increased need for nurses because just like the restaurants are more full, the other places fill up, the hospitals do the same,” Foster said, adding that during that time the hospital hires seasonal staff to assist in patient care.

This isn’t the only solution in place to prevent fatigue.

In fact, according to both Turley and Foster, DHR Health and STHS have hired more certified nurse assistants, or CNAs, to help tend to the tasks that take time away from the primary physician and nurses.

“We as a hospital, for our nurses, are bringing additional support so they can focus their time and efforts on skill sets that only they have,” Turley said. “They are able to respond to the patient and the patients’ families and relieve that burden on the nurses.”

Chief Strategy Officer Jennifer Bartnesky-Smith said Valley Baptist is filling the gaps by prioritizing recruitment and outreach.

In a statement Friday, she acknowledged the challenges facing healthcare facilities in the U.S., but like Turley and Foster, she said local efforts to provide relief remain a source of hope.

“Staffing challenges are not a unique story to Valley Baptist Health System, as healthcare entities throughout the Rio Grande Valley and the nation are experiencing similar shortages, especially when it comes to nursing,” Bartnesky-Smith premised. “As we continue to adjust to the post COVID-19 pandemic landscape in health care, Valley Baptist has made filling our nursing vacancies one of our top priorities.”

Bartnesky-Smith said Valley Baptist has held events where anyone interested in a career in health care can leave with “tangible job offers.” She also highlighted the ongoing training efforts.

“We’ve also developed recruitment events that not only focus on drawing new talent from within the Valley, but from beyond the Valley as well to ultimately increase the depth of our local talent pool,” Bartnesky-Smith added. “We’re also working diligently to train the next generation of nurses through the Valley Baptist School of Vocational Nursing, we will continue to do everything we can to make sure we can provide the very best for our communities.”

Although Bartnesky-Smith, Foster and Turley all say their respective hospital systems are working to mitigate the nursing shortage seen nationally, nearly any facility can be at the mercy of a local medical struggle or a global health crisis like the pandemic, and periods of shortages can fluctuate as a result.

“I think long-term education is really the key,” Turley stressed.

A medical worker walks outside South Texas Health System McAllen on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (Joel Martinez

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