EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU) — COVID-19 has magnified a healthcare problem that existed even before the pandemic. That problem is a nursing shortage that is sparking record levels of hospital staff turnover.

It’s more than job burnout that’s feeding into those shortages. So is the issue of staff nurses resigning and going to work for profitable traveling programs.

A local healthcare system believes it has come up with a solution to maintain its nursing staff.

Just how bad is the problem of nursing turnover? It’s doubled at UPMC since this time last year. While the problem is not unique to the healthcare industry, what UPMC has come up with is.

“I’m excited to tell you about our newest program which is innovative, it’s bold and it’s a game-changer,” stated Holly Lorenz, Chief Nurse Executive at UPMC.

UPMC recently announced it’s preparing to launch what it believes is the nation’s first in-house travel staffing agency. It will be comprised initially of registered nurses and surgical technologists.

“The benefits are huge and it’s a win-win for UPMC and for nurses who would like to travel,” said Lorenz.

Nurses will travel to UPMC hospitals in New York, Maryland and here in Pennsylvania, including UPMC facilities in Williamsport and Lock Haven.

UPMC traveling nurses will earn $85 an hour while surgical technologists will be paid an hourly rate of $63. Travel allowances of $2,880 paid upfront every six weeks are also part of the deal.

“It’s a way for us to keep our own nurses, to recruit new nurses to UPMC, and to bring back nurses who have left the system,” explained Lorenz.

Many nurses have left healthcare due to COVID burnout a situation that has only worsened in recent weeks.

“Our goal is to get to 800 nurses but it’s going to take time to get there. Our initial goal is to re-recruit UPMC nurses who have left,” said John Galley, Senior VP/Chief Human Resources Officer at UPMC.

800 traveling nurses is about the same amount currently working in the UPMC system of 40 hospitals. Galley admits being a traveling nurse isn’t a lifestyle for everyone. But by filling a need through this new program, he says it helps solve a big problem.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t going to help our core nurses and our core technicians. They’re the ones providing the bulk of the care,” explained Galley.

UPMC posted job openings for its travel nursing program last week and plans to launch the program on January 2nd.

UPMC’s chief human resources officer says it takes time to get new and additional nursing students through the pipelines of the pandemic.

While those future nurses will be an obvious help, in-house travel nurses will help UPMC fill an immediate need.