UAA graduates some nurses early amid COVID

  • UAA School of Nursing student Krysta Byford checks vital signs on actor Danny Ashton Earll as he portrays a patient about to be discharged during a simulated patient care scenario in UAA’s Health Sciences Building Simulation Center. (Photo/James R. Evans/University of Alaska Anchorage)

With the coronavirus pandemic increasing pressure on hospitals and demand for health care workers, a handful of new nurses will be launching into the field from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

UAA’s School of Nursing recently graduated a handful of its senior students a few weeks early, allowing them to move into the health care workforce right away. The School of Nursing and College of Health administration offered a chance for up to 72 students in the bachelor’s and associate’s programs in good academic standing the chance to finish their last few credits on a faster timeline.

They were then eligible for a temporary license from the state Board of Nursing to allow them to begin practicing immediately, provided they take the full registered nurse exam within six months.

Jeff Jessee, the dean of the College of Health, said many of the eligible students were in clinicals at the local hospitals when the pandemic struck. The university administrators considered each student on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they were comfortable recommending that student for graduation and licensure, and the accreditors and state Board of Nursing worked with those recommendations.

“Some of (the students) were, say, a few hours short of finishing their clinical hours that were required,” he said. “What we were able to do was start going through each of their transcripts and analyze how far along in their program they are, looking at their skills, certifications, and identifying those students whom we felt comfortable that the School of Nursing could certify that we could graduate.”

The nursing students are equipped with all the skills they need to be able to treat COVID-19 in the course of the regular curriculum, even if they do not go to work in the ICU with coronavirus-positive patients right away, Jessee said. Because the graduates were working in clinicals in the area hospitals, the medical staff there knows them and their skills as they go into the workforce, he said.

One of the primary reasons for the drastic measures taken by governments across the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus is to prevent health care facilities from being overwhelmed. In areas with significant numbers of infections, like New York City and Florida, hospitals are reporting concerns about being able to find enough nurses to meet their needs.

However, Alaska implemented closures early and thus has not seen a significant spike in cases, leaving hospitals with enough capacity so far to handle them. The additional move of restricting elective surgeries, opening up additional capacity, has helped with those concerns and actually left some nurses without enough work so far, Jessee said.

That decision has financially hit hospitals, which make much of their revenue from outpatient, elective, and ambulatory surgeries. While the restrictions have been difficult across Alaska, the moves have helped keep the state out of danger of being overwhelmed, Jessee said.

“You can’t wait for this curve to shoot up, because it happens so fast; by the time you realize you’re overwhelmed, it’s too late,” he said. “That’s the really advantage Alaska has had in getting so far ahead of this … If and when we start seeing the numbers that other places are seeing, we’ll already have this capacity in place.”

In addition to the early graduates, the School of Nursing is encouraging the rest of its students to obtain their Certified Nursing Assistant credentials if they do not already have them to be able to go to work in the industry. CNAs provide basic patient care, which can free up nurses in health care facilities to provide the higher levels of care they are qualified for.

CNA certifications are already somewhat common in the School of Nursing; any student who has completed at least a year of an associate’s or bachelor’s program qualifies to take the exam. Jessee said many students work as they complete their nursing education program, and a CNA allows students to start working in the health care setting before graduating.

The College of Health and School of Nursing, along with the entire University of Alaska system, has transitioned to primarily distance education this spring as a way to promote social distancing and prevent the spread of the coronavirus on college campuses.

The School of Nursing had a head start on online courses, as the classes are already distributed to sites across the state from Kotzebue to Bethel to Ketchikan, Jessee said. The state recently designated health education as essential, and so some classes will be able to go back to face-to-face meetings, he said.

While the accelerated graduation will help some graduates enter the workforce faster as their services are in high demand, the graduates of the School of Nursing never really have a hard time finding jobs, Jessee said; many are hired before they graduate. Though the university appreciates the help of the Board of Nursing and the accreditation agency to help some graduates move forward sooner, the administration is planning to be back on track with the normal academic schedule in the future.

“I think we’re pretty confident that we’re going to be able to get back on track and keep our students moving through the program at the normal pace when we‘ve fully adapted to the distance courses, remote learning, those sorts of things,” Jessee said. “I think it’s this emergent situation that required us to make some adaptations right away. There may be some changes going forward, to keep the numbers (of available nurses) up, but we have a pretty good production system already. Once we adapt to the new reality, as people say, I think we’ll be back on track.”

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
04/29/2020 - 9:24am