They were on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic, facing extreme workloads, crowded health facilities, and even abuse from COVID-19 patients and their families.

Now, nurses nationwide are facing a new challenge - a looming shortage of workers qualified to do the essential health duties.

That nurse shortage is forecast to be particularly acute in Hampton Roads, despite more than a dozen local institutions training the next generation of registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants. The issue was explored in Old Dominion University's State of the Region report, released Oct. 4.

"We predict in the coming decade Hampton Roads will not produce enough nurses to meet our health care needs," Suzanne Wright, chair of ODU's School of Nursing, said at the State of the Region presentation in downtown Norfolk. Wright said public health observers have begun to use the phrase "nurse deserts" to describe regions and communities that will be hard hit by demographic changes and increasing health needs.

Currently, 15 percent of the population of Hampton Roads is aged 65 or older, lower than the national average by a full percentage point. By 2030, the projected share of seniors here will rise to 19 percent, above the predicted national and Virginia averages.

Yet Wright showed data that indicates Hampton Roads still has fewer registered nurses working than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is despite the need for nurses soaring, leading many nurses to retire early or quit altogether.

This isn't just a Hampton Roads phenomenon.

"There are 3 million registered nurses in the United States. This is the largest section of our U.S. health care workforce," Wright said.

And with the issue of service cutbacks because of staffing levels causing pressure on the health care system already, other regions will compete to lure the nursing students who do graduate from Hampton Roads' educational and training institutions.

"This is a big concern for our region, because of state and national competition for our nurses and nursing graduates," Wright said. "Nurses produce nurses, and if we don't have enough of them, it could turn into a vicious circle."

Old Dominion University's Dragas Center for Economic Analysis & Policy has been a forum to examine life in this region through an economic lens for more than two decades. In addition to the State of the Region Report (available HERE), all other reports produced by Dragas Center researchers are available for download.

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