TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The majority of hospitals in Tampa Bay currently report that they need immediate backup to handle the surge of COVID-19 patients and, according to the Florida Hospital Association, our facilities are on the brink of a critical staffing shortage.

Health care workers facing the fourth wave of the virus say they are wiped out. Nurses say increasing incentives aren’t enough to make up for the exhaustion being felt as hospitalizations surge.

“It’s just a vicious cycle of not having enough nurses and them quitting because they’re exhausted,” Polk County nurse Tiffany Mcmahan said.

To cope, health care systems like BayCare have paused elective surgical procedures that require an overnight stay.

“Staffing is our number one need,” BayCare Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nishant Anand said.

At a news conference on the delta variant at Lykes Gaslight Park in Tampa on Aug. 13, leaders from three of the largest hospital systems all said they’re seeing an unprecedented number of COVID patients.

“We need clinical nurses, respiratory therapists,” Dr. Anand said.

While there’s a clear consensus that hospitals are overwhelmed, there’s little agreement on how to fix that staffing crisis – or who should be doing it.

At a news conference in Orlando on Aug. 16, Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters hospitals have the staffing issue under control.

“I spoke with folks in Central Florida and beyond. They all say that this is their responsibility,” DeSantis said. “I know that they’re making whatever arrangements they need to do.”

But Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who represents Tampa in the U.S. House, says he needs to take action now.

“I’m asking the governor to issue an emergency order so that we can unlock additional staff,” Rep. Castor said. “I’m scared for this community.”

So are hospitals equipped to handle the COVID-19 surge we’re seeing? 8 On Your Side contacted facilities and health care professionals state-wide to find out. We learned what they need is more nurses. A lot more.

Last year, via executive order, Florida allowed hospitals to bring any licensed health care worker from out of state to help. But that’s all changed.

Now, during the most critical time of need, nurses with out-of-state licenses can’t work here. The executive order expired.

In recent weeks, Gov. DeSantis has urged Floridians to seek monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19. By Friday, there’ll be 21 state sites that offer the potentially life-saving treatment for free.

During a news conference in Hudson, Gov. DeSantis said Regeneron will help keep people out of the hospital, therefore, reducing the surge.

8 On Your Side Investigator Mahsa Saeidi asked if there was more that he could do and if he would consider suspending state laws to allow nurses with out-of-state licenses to come to Florida and help.

“Well, I think that they should be able to do that,” DeSantis responded. “I’d have to look to see. We’ve obviously supported that in the past.”

Gov. DeSantis said the staff crunch is nationwide.

“We obviously had a bunch of folks under contract last year because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.

Gov. DeSantis also said hospitals aren’t specifically asking him for more staff at this time.

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Health tells 8 On Your Side, in general, it’s expediting licenses to support hospitals. The department has launched a new system to connect new license holders with potential employers.

The staffing shortage is not only being seen in Florida. The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent an alert this month outlining what states, communities and hospitals should do before asking for back-up nurses. Due to the nationwide COVID-19 surge, there’s little federal staff available.

If Gov. DeSantis does waive this requirement, hospitals can immediately get staff from sister facilities in less impacted areas out-of-state.

Florida Department of Health statement:

“The Florida Department of Health (DOH) continues to actively respond to COVID-19, especially as it comes to resource and staffing support statewide. DOH is responsible for the regulation and licensure of health practitioners for the preservation of the health, safety, and welfare of the public. DOH works diligently to ensure the licensing process is expedited and as efficient as possible to support health care facilities. A list of licenses that are issued by DOH can be found here.

To ensure the health care workforce is continuously growing and meeting demands of health care facilities, DOH developed a new licensee lookup to help connect newly licensed practitioners with potential employers. Additionally, nurses that hold a multi-state compact license are able to assist Florida with health care needs.