In a classroom in a remote corner of Bonneville High School, students were being fitted Tuesday for N95 masks.
Chris Trubl, a registered nurse from Mountain View Hospital’s education department, was on hand with a supply of masks and tools to test their seal. After students put on a mask, Trubl placed a Hazmat hood on their heads and pumped flavored air into it from a small canister. If the N95 was properly fit, it would take minutes before enough particles of bitter air made it through the filters for the students to taste it. If it wasn’t, they’d taste it more quickly.
The students in Bonneville’s certified nursing assistant (CNA) class have been learning about the medical field since September. The mask fitting was a step toward the next phase of their education, doing clinical work at Mountain View Hospital starting in a few weeks.
“I’m nervous that I won’t know everything I need to do, but it will good to be working with people who need it,” senior Megan Erickson said.
Most of the hospital’s work that will be done by the high schoolers during the clinicals will be shadowing nurses and working with patients: getting them in and out of their rooms, helping them get dressed and to eat. If the Good Samaritan Society reopens to outside workers soon, students also will be working with senior citizens at the rehabilitation center there.
As the coronavirus has pushed health care workers into more prominent roles, it has begun inspiring more students to enter those fields. Colleges began reporting increased applications for their nursing programs over the summer. For states such as Idaho that have already been seeing nursing shortages, that increased interest comes up against the limited options for students to get hands-on experience with patients.
“There is just a need for more personnel right now,” Mountain View Hospital spokesman Brian Ziel said. “But I think that working with nursing students from around here helps keep them in the local community.”
An October report from the Idaho Nursing Workforce Center said the state will have a shortage of registered nurses until 2024. Since 2018, Idaho has added about 300 licensed practical nurses (LPN) to the workforce but lost more than 600 registered nurses (RN).
“Increasing student enrollment and clinical partnerships with organizations that employ nurses is essential to sustain the workforce,” the report stated as a way to mitigate that shortage.
Dixie Jamison is the clinical liaison for the department of nursing at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Jamison said there had been issues with finding enough clinical opportunities for nursing students well before the coronavirus appeared but there has also been high demand for health care courses.
“We are now to a point where we have more qualified applicants than we can accept this semester, and that demand has remained strong through the rise of COVID,” Jamison said.
The majority of Idaho’s hospitals use at least one traveling nurse to make up for local shortages. Jamison said those nurses and the risk of working with COVID-19 patients limited the options for clinical placements.
“Those nurses are frequently not allowed to take on students. It’s reduced the number of clinical patients we can work with because they can’t find enough regular staff,” Jamison said.
BYU-Idaho has found other opportunities for students to gain clinical hours during the last few months. Some work with more specialized clinics in the region, whether that means helping respiratory therapists at Madison Memorial Hospital or visiting OB/GYNs in the area.
Others apply to get more independent experience by becoming a nurse apprentice. Students doing regular clinicals must be overseen by a licensed nurse at all times when working with patients. Nurse apprentices, who are approved for the positions by the state nursing board, are approved to take certain actions they’ve been trained in without that supervision.
Amy Johnson, a local nurse who teaches the CNA class at Bonneville, said the program has always been a popular career technical option for students. Getting into the nursing program meant students had to take pre-requisite courses and interview their way into the program.
One thing the students do to brush up skills is serving on Bonneville’s Student Code Team. Students take shifts on the team, where they will be called on multiple times per week by the school to help out with minor student health issues that arise.
“If someone falls or has an anxiety attack, they make the call and the code team goes out,” Johnson said.
The College of Eastern Idaho also has seen a surplus of applicants for the roughly 100 annual positions in its nursing classes. Last spring the college added two more pathways that allowed students to attend year-round with fewer classes at one time. One of the pathways was dedicated to providing more advanced degrees to practical nurses.
CEI’s Dean of Health and Human Services Clint Reading said that licensed nurses in the region would be immediately able to fill demand.
“We are training them to deal with exactly this type of crisis situation and this pandemic,” Reading said.