Covid-19 exposed the devastating consequences of staff shortages in nursing homes. But the problem isn't new

A licensed practical nurse walks down a hallway at an assisted living facility in Marlborough, Massachusetts, in August 2020.

(CNN)Julie Moore recalls harrowing experiences from the pandemic inside the Philadelphia nursing home where she works.

As the virus spread throughout the facility last year, emergency responders came and went regularly, taking yet another resident running low on oxygen to the hospital. Staff members were infected and some died, leaving a facility already running low on employees struggling to keep up with residents' needs.
"It was so few of us in the building that we were just literally running from floor to floor seeing who needed help," Moore, who works as a certified nursing assistant, said. "It was an absolute nightmare."
Covid-19 ravaged nursing homes across the United States -- killing more than 132,000 residents and more than 1,900 staff members as of June 13, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) -- and it also highlighted the dire consequences that staff shortages in those long-term care facilities can have.
Julie Moore
But experts say this has been a decades-old problem.
"Seventy-five percent of the nursing homes had inadequate staffing before the pandemic started," said Charlene Harrington, a professor emerita at the University of California, San Francisco. "It's not surprising that they weren't able to cope with it."
Recruiting new staff wasn't easy before: The pay is low and the work is demanding. In May 2020, the median annual wage for nursing assistants -- most of whom work full-time -- in nursing care facilities was $30,120, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"It's a very hard job and no one wants to come to do that job specifically for the amount that we're paid now," said Chaunte Jones, a certified nursing assistant in Michigan.
And the pandemic didn't make things easier. A June 2021 survey from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) found 94% of nursing home providers had a shortage of staff members in the last month -- and more than half lost key members of their staff during the pandemic due to workers quitting.
"What you're telling nursing home assistants, nursing home staff, is that they need to work for probably the same amount of pay -- or maybe a small raise, who knows -- and they need to put their lives and their family's lives at risk by going into a nursing home where Covid-19 could creep in at any time," said Michael Barnett, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Now, nursing home staff across the country are demanding change and better pay and providers are calling on the government for more funding to tackle the staffing crisis.

Patients suffer from the shortages

The long-standing shortage in these positions and high turnover rates left staff members across long-term care facilities scrambling for years to tend to every resident, and they're often unable to finish their tasks each day, Harrington said.
Federal regulations require that facilities have "sufficient nursing staff" with the necessary skill sets to keep residents safe and maintain their well-being.
Facilities that receive Medicaid and Medicare payments are required to provide 24-hour licensed nursing services, have a registered nurse for at least eight consecutive hours every day and have a registered nurse designated to serve as director of nursing on a full-time basis.
"Nursing homes are perpetually understaffed and the reason for that i