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WVU School of Nursing guides state through nursing staff shortages

WVU Today

Students and faculty across the state have stepped up to answer the needs of the nursing shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to a three-point plan established by the West Virginia University School of Nursing.

Since the pandemic gained momentum, the demands on nurses have never been greater. Larger patient to staff ratios, nurses contracting the virus themselves and workforce burnout exacerbated an already existing nursing shortage.

As the need in West Virginia grew, WVU School of Nursing Dean Tara Hulsey and her team  developed a plan to meet the state’s nursing demands — giving students and faculty the opportunity to put their skills to work.

“When that call came, with my military background, I thought, ‘How can I not?’ Our fellow nurses are calling, of course I have to help,” said Sandra “Sam” Cotton, an associate professor with the WVU School of Nursing. “A colleague of mine and I decided to do it together. It had been a while since either of us had been in an acute care setting. The last time for me was with the military in the war. Despite the changes in technology, I felt confident I could help.”

The response plan allowed nursing faculty members to take a patient assignment with RNs on the units, at clinical sites in return for comp time or workload release, and a choice to be paid directly by the organization as a per diem employee. Because of her prior experience, Cotton was assigned in late September to the WVU Medicine cardiac floor, although the nurses in that unit have taken on many additional responsibilities, including trauma care and COVID patient care.

“I cannot tell you how glad and humbled I am to be there when I can be. The nurses and clinical associates are so receptive to us,” said Cotton, who has more than 20 years of experience as a nurse practitioner. “I believe we’re a valued asset there, helping out however we can. It also gives us even more compassion for our fellow bedside nurses as they work through the pandemic. It is extremely busy, coupled with the challenges of the nursing shortage.”

The response plan also allows junior- and senior-level nursing students to volunteer to work with hospitals outside of school hours. Their assignments depend on their level of progression within the nursing program, and can range from assisting patients with daily living needs and collecting vital signs to patient transport and providing emotional support. Hulsey said the WVU School of Nursing had an extraordinary response from students.

Grace Eberhart, a senior in the WVU Nursing Program, worked as a clinical associate at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital during the pandemic, helping feed and bathe patients, take vital readings and perform finger sticks.

“The support we got from the hospital was tremendous and everyone in my family was so proud of me for stepping up,” Eberhart said. “The staff on our floor taught me that it’s OK to ask for help. Teamwork is huge. Now more than ever, you need to work as a team.”

Despite the challenges, Eberhart said she’s looking forward to graduating in May and beginning her career as a registered nurse.

“Helping people is so rewarding and that pushes me to be better every day,” she said. “Having a job that when you go home you know you’ve helped people and you know you’ve made a difference — it’s amazing.”

Additionally, the response plan allows faculty teaching a clinical group in a clinical site to be paid by the organization to teach half of a clinical group to provide patient care in unit assigned by the clinical site based on need. The other half of the clinical group will be individually assigned to clinical site organizational RN employees in a preceptor model, again based on their level of progression in the nursing program.

Hulsey, who also serves as president of the West Virginia Board of Examiners for Registered Professional Nurses, vetted the three-point plan with the board and shared it with the West Virginia Hospital Association. The RN Board shared the plan with all nursing schools and the Hospital Association sent it to all clinical sites.

“I believe having the plan vetted by the RN Board and Hospital Association made it more of a statewide effort, rather than focused just on WVU. There’s flexibility within the plan, so nursing programs can take the suggestions and apply what works best,” Hulsey said.

The Board of Nurses also helped recruit retired nurses in good standing to return to the workforce, offering them same-day licenses to meet the demands. Within two weeks, there were  58 retired nurses back in the workforce offering their help.

“It has provided additional nurses to assist with the hospital staffing crisis during the pandemic,” Hulsey said. “We’ve received verbal appreciation from hospital administration. We’re all in this together.”

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