Work a 13-week contract, take a great vacation, repeat: That’s more or less been life for travel nurses. But with the pandemic, stakes in medical environments around the US have never been higher — or more essential.

Two years into travel nursing, Sierra Levin had no plans to settle down. Working around three months at a time at hospitals in California, Massachusetts and Texas — and taking time off in between to explore France, Australia and New Zealand — the 26-year-old was enjoying the adventure too much to stop.

Ryan Cogdill knows the feeling. “It’s an addiction for me, the freedom I have,” says Cogdill, who’s cared for patients throughout his native California, in Denver and in Austin. He’s even taken assignments in Maui and Guam.

Work a 13-week contract, travel the world for a month, repeat: That’s more or less been life for Cogdill, 31, for the past seven years.

Levin and Cogdill are far from the only registered nurses criss-crossing the country to fill in-demand positions at hospitals. From flocking to places that need all hands on deck at certain times of the year, like during flu season, to simply filling out a unit’s staffing needs, travel nurses make up around 1.5% to 2% of US nurses.

And the market for travel nursing is expanding, with research from Staffing Industry Analysts showing a 14% jump in revenue from 2019 to 2020. This demand is underscored by the nursing shortage happening in many parts of the country, one that’s only expected to worsen.

How it works

“Travelers,” as they’re known in the medical community, don’t fly totally solo. They work with staffing agencies to find placements based on expertise in a particular specialty (nurses with experience in the intensive care unit and emergency room, plus medical-surgery and operating room nurses, are some of the most in-demand caregivers). They’re also placed based on location and salary preferences.

Recruiters also help iron out contract details, from how many weeks a job will be (ranging anywhere from 26 to four) to stipends for housing and meals.

Hospitals can range from rural facilities to major medical centers. Along the way, travelers can explore life in different places for far longer than most vacationers — with the added flexibility of taking weeks-long vacations between hospital stints, too.

Covid-19 changes

But even travel nurses, used to high-stakes medical environments and changing their lives overnight, weren’t expecting how dramatically things would shift once the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Many, like Cogdill, right away felt compelled to take assignments on the front lines. He headed to Seattle in March, when it was one of the first US cities to experience a spike in confirmed Covid cases.

“I felt a responsibility to be here and take care of people,” he explains, adding that he also wanted to relieve fellow healthcare workers battling the virus nonstop.

(States and agencies in pandemic hotspots are still desperate to bring in nurses and healthcare workers, offering increased crisis pay and waiving some licensing requirementst.)

Other travel nurses found themselves with plans and jobs abruptly upended.

In early March, Brittany Greaves, 31, was traveling in South Africa after a two-week medical volunteer trip. When the severity of the pandemic became apparent, she scrambled to get a flight to Los Angeles, not knowing whether the pediatrics job she’d signed a contract for there would pan out amid the crisis.

Hospitals were canceling contracts en masse, as elective procedures and other non-Covid treatments slowed or were paused altogether.

Other canceled contracts stemmed from hospitals that overestimated a surge in Covid cases.

Travel nurses, “already live in so much uncertainty,” she says — canceled contracts aren’t unheard of in normal times. Travelers often don’t receive paid time off or sick days, but “this was a perfect storm in our world.”

After quarantining for two weeks, Greaves was able to start her contract. For months, many of her pediatric travel nurse friends weren’t so lucky.

Though she’s seen more noncrisis jobs available recently, because of the pandemic, “it’s slim pickings,” she says.

Seeking support

Given the uncertainty, Levin has decided to stay put for now, extending her pediatric cardiac intensive care unit contract in Austin, Texas.

She had planned to go for nursing gigs in Los Angeles, Denver and Seattle this year, and spend a few months in Australia again, but with attractions closed and meeting new people untenable, “I can’t really explore and don’t feel safe indulging in new cities,” she says.

Plus, Levin’s not comfortable flying right now. Starting over somewhere new just “is not worth it,” when she already has the support of friends and co-workers in Austin.

This support system is vital. Though she’s not currently treating Covid-19 patients, working in medicine in a current virus hotspot, she…

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