Ms. Joseph, the nursing student, was scheduled this spring to complete her preceptorship in labor and delivery, which is now canceled. Her disappointment at the delayed graduation quickly turned to frustration. She said that she could play a useful role at a clinic without directly treating coronavirus patients — helping the triage nurses take patient vitals, distributing masks, assisting with screening questions, communicating with patients’ families and visitors. Instead, she is in her apartment, wondering when she will be able to return to work.
Paige Hilt, 24, another nursing student in California, was set to graduate in May. “Of course it’s scary, but as nurses we encounter people with different illnesses all the time,” she said. “We don’t know how bad this is going to get, and we need as many people as possible. Not to mention a lot of nurses are older, and what happens when they get sick?”
Joanne Spetz, a professor at the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco, said her research indicated that patient numbers would far outstrip hospital staff capacity in the coming months, as coronavirus cases continue to rise. There are nearly four million registered nurses in the United States, but only 20 percent work in critical care. More nurses will need to be freed to move into intensive care units, meaning others will need to be ready to take their places.
Dr. Spetz said that states and nurse licensing boards should be preparing by easing licensing requirements for registered nurses who need to cross state lines, and ensuring medical workers have emergency child care. In the meantime, the need is simple: to prepare as many nurses and nursing students as possible to help.
“Students of all health professions have knowledge and training already,” Dr. Spetz said. “There are going to be many roles they’ll be useful in as we rapidly deploy in an emergency.”
Each day on her way to the office, Dr. Goldfarb passes a poster with the face of a smiling World War I nurse. “Wanted: 20,000 nurses,” it reads. A sense of duty is ingrained in the nursing profession, she said. Even during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, student nurses were called to hospitals to care for the ill.
“We walk toward what most people walk away from,” Dr. Goldfarb said. Now she wonders: Will her students be able to do the same?