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New Nurses Arrive To Fill Shortage — And Face COVID

As an emergency room nurse, easy days are rare. Caring for several patients at once, running the floor and trying to keep a cool head is part of the daily routine.

When Kaitlyn Auffhammer began nursing school in fall 2019, she could never have guessed how much the world would need nurses after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our second semester was remote. Our clinicals were online. We definitely lost that hands-on experience,” Auffhammer said.

In 2021, she graduated from Tompkins Cortland Community College’s nursing program, which partnered with Guthrie Cortland Medical Center, and soon became a registered nurse.

“I think that TC3 did a really great job preparing their nurses through this pandemic and preparing us to become nurses,” Auffhammer said. “Guthrie has followed up really well with making us feel like we’re never alone.”

PANDEMIC GRADUATION

Auffhammer graduated into a world where nurses are more essential than ever.

U.S. hospitals have faced a nursing shortage since 2010, and the COVID-19 pandemic intensified that as pandemic burnout led many to retire or leave their jobs.

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases continue to rise and fall, placing pressure on the health care system. California faces a gap of 40,000 nurses, or 14% of the workforce, reports the University of California, San Francisco.

Hospitals are filling the gap with temps, “traveling nurses,” but the cost adds up. Hospital administrators say not enough nurses are graduating from U.S. schools each year to meet the demand. They’re looking to acquire green cards for overseas nurses to come to America.

Nationally, vacancies are up 45% from a year ago and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 500,000 more nurses to quit this year, leaving the nation short 1.1 million nurses.

Elsewhere:

¯ Earlier this month, Nevada recruited nearly 100 nursing students to act as apprentices in hospitals, supplementing staff dealing with COVID-19 and the influx brought on by the Omicron variant.

¯ North Dakota offered a $2,000 bonus for new healthcare providers to work in nursing homes.

¯ Facing a 4,000-nurse gap in need vs. supply, Indiana lawmakers approved a plan to allow nursing schools to increase enrollment and hire more part-time instructors if they have a high percentage of graduates passing the national nursing licensing exam.

EXPERIENCED NURSES LEARN TO ADAPT

Sandy Fox, a perioperative nurse educator at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center, received her associate’s and registered nurse license from TC3 in 2019 and later received her bachelor’s in nursing from Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.

“Nursing is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Fox said. “I feel like you never stop learning in healthcare and there are always opportunities to continue to grow. That’s why I love healthcare — every day you learn something new.”

Now, Fox educates recent graduates about caring for patients before, during and after surgery.

Like Fox, caring for people has always been Auffhammer’s passion.

“After high school, I became a CNA (certified nursing assistant) and I’ve worked in nursing homes, I’ve worked at (Guthrie) Robert Packer Hospital, on medical-surgical nursing, on home health,” Auffhammer said. “I waited until my kids were in school so I could go back to school myself and become an RN.”

Now, her children are 9 and 14 years old, seeing their mom follow her dreams.

GLOBAL NURSING SHORTAGE

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing saw the shortage coming years ago — it’s not simply a COVID phenomenon. Aging Baby Boomers need more care, even as the Baby Bust followed it.

Two studies in 2010 forecast a nursing shortage. One of them, by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, suggested increasing the number of nurses with four-year degrees by 80% and doubling the number of nurses with Ph.Ds.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the need for nurses will increase nearly 9% between 2019 and 2029, to nearly 3.4 million, up to 195,000 openings a year.

The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences projects that America will need 1.2 million new registered nurses by 2030.

UNPRECEDENTED TIMES

“It was definitely scary at first — just the unknown,” Auffhammer said. “Sitting in 2020, not knowing when it’s ever going to end, not knowing what your career would look like or what it’s going to be like in general, how healthcare and treatment were going to change.”

At the start of the pandemic, healthcare workers teamed up to help other departments.

“We were only going urgent, emergency surgeries at one point, so we had a very limited staff,” Fox said. “The first wave of COVID was hard and stressful, and we were deployed down to the floors to help out. It was great to go down to help all the nurses during this battle and show they weren’t by themselves, that they had extra help.”

After graduation, Auffhammer chose to join the Guthrie Cortland Medical Center’s staff, knowing there would be support for new nurses.

“Everyone in the building is highly trained, and the level of communication between departments is unparalleled,” said Steve Osterhaus, communications coordinator for the hospital. “It’s something I have never seen before, to make sure everyone receives high-level quality care.”

TC3 OFFERS FLEXIBLE NURSING PROGRAM

Two years ago, Guthrie partnered with Tompkins Cortland Community College to create the college’s first evening nursing program. The first cohort of 20 nursing students graduated in December.

They received the same training as nurses in a daytime program, but scheduled and structured to appeal to non-traditional students.

It was a success, Professor Kim Sharpe, chairwoman of the college’s nursing program, said in December, despite classes beginning shortly before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Enough of a success that the program is expanding, the college announced in December. Ten more evening students will be supported by Cayuga Medical Center.

Like the Guthrie-sponsored students, the students will do their clinical work at their sponsored organizations as they do classroom work in Dryden. It builds a pipeline for the future.

FINDING HER PLACE

Auffhammer and the other recent graduates went through a series of rotations, spending a few weeks in different departments throughout the hospital, and she was later matched with the emergency department.

It can sound scary, but Auffhammer said she can handle the pressure and is constantly learning.

As a new hire, Auffhammer saw firsthand how the nursing shortage was affecting the hospital.

“In a way, it’s a really great time to come into nursing — there are so many things to learn and I feel like the staff appreciates the nurses coming on because they need the help more than ever,” Auffhammer said. “It’s very rewarding, and everyone really appreciates nurses now more than ever.”

“The reward of nursing is so much better than the stress and emotions going through your head right now,” Auffhammer said. “Peers in the department – it’s like a family connection. We all appreciate each other — between our staff, our bosses, our doctors — we’re all going through the same struggles but I think we’re doing great.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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