SALT LAKE CITY — As hospitals fill up and health care workers become overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, FOX 13 has learned the state has created a temporary stop gap to help with a shortage of nurses.
Utah's Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing will create a temporary nursing apprentice license that allows nursing students close to graduating to be put to work in hospitals and clinics, providing potentially hundreds of new health care workers to give some relief.
"What they’re actually doing is adding knowledgeable and fresh hands and legs to support the nursing staff who, of course now are running into the problems of having less, challenged staffing, having enough nurses," said Dr. Liz Close, a registered nurse and the executive director of the Utah Nurses Association. "Many are out because they've tested positive for COVID-19, they're quarantining or they're sick and they're in isolation. They’re exhausted. It’s not just taking care of the COVID patients, it’s taking care of all the other patients in the hospital, too."
The UNA and other health care organizations like the Utah Hospitals Association gave input on the idea that was facilitated by Utah's Department of Health and Governor Gary Herbert's office. In an email sent to all of Utah's nursing schools and shared with FOX 13, DOPL said it's "to provide hospitals and skilled nursing communities with a possible staffing option during the pandemic."
The students, who are close to graduation and taking their final exams, would not be put to work with COVID-19 patients directly. But they can be used to help other aspects of care that has been impacted by the deadly virus. For example, they could help in clinics or offices that treat patients for other medical needs and allowing more senior nurses to be utilized to deal with COVID-19 patients or other urgent care patients.
"They’re calling the title a nurse apprentice," said Dr. Donna Lister, who heads Southern Utah University's Department of Nursing. "And if they are interested in working as a nurse apprentice, which, as I understand it, they will be taking care of patients who are not COVID-positive, but patients who are hospitalized and nursing care. So it frees up nurses in the hospital."
Dr. Judy Scott, who is the director of Dixie State College's nursing school (which offers an online program), said she had already had a couple of students reach out to see if they qualify. She believed it could be a "win-win" for students, and she pointed out those students are qualified to start working.
"It’s not like they’re new to this. This is something they’ve been dealing with since March," she said of working in the pandemic. "They have the skills to be good nurses and they also have the experience with COVID and the restrictions with COVID to be good and to be helpful."
Dr. Scott said she believed it was something positive for students who have lived under restrictions and closures brought about by the pandemic. Dr. Lister told FOX 13 she believed it would be a valuable resource for hospitals and clinics across Utah, too.
"I think this could make a significant difference," she said.
Dr. Close said the measure was temporary and not likely to be extended past the emergency of the pandemic. But she urged Utahns to do more to avoid overwhelming hospitals.
"The more you follow the public guidelines, the less people get sick, the less they go into the hospital," she said. "And the less they go in the hospital, the less nurses we need."