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Rookies on the frontline: Nursing schools adapt to prepare grads for pandemic work

Fresh out of college, the newest nurses are hitting the workforce in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

INDIANAPOLIS — As more hospitals fill to capacity across the country, doctors and nurses are feeling unprecedented pressure.

Jacob Powell is about to feel it for the first time.

"I graduated last week,” he said.

His degree is in nursing from Ball State University. He's about to begin work in a hospital's cardiovascular ICU.

Powell said he’s been told he will work with COVID-19 patients and he realizes it won’t be easy.

"Mine will be the sickest of the sick,” he said. “People are like, 'Are you scared?' and the answer's no. I did this profession so I could help other people. And what better time to do it than now?"

How do schools prepare graduates for work in a pandemic?

That's something we have talked about,” said Jessica Duncan, a registered nurse and lecturer at Ball State. “How do we make them prepared for something that? Can even you prepare for this? I don't think anyone was prepared for what we're dealing with now."

Duncan said COVID-19 has actually changed how nursing schools are preparing their students.

"One thing we really started focusing on this semester is self care,” said Duncan. “Compassion fatigue is real, and we’re losing really good nurses because we don't know how to take care of ourselves."

Some schools, like the University of South Florida, are now offering continuing education courses on just that - and not only for new nurses.

"We're targeting experienced nurses, too, because although they have experience, nobody has experience practicing in this pandemic," said Rayna Letourneau, assistant professor in the College of Nursing at the University of South Florida.

New nurses needed

Credit: Johnson Memorial Health

In Indiana, Jacob Powell and his classmates are answering the call at a most critical time. These new nurses are entering the profession just as the industry works to avoid a nursing shortage with a wave of Baby Boomer nurses retiring over the next decade.  

According to the American Nurses Association, more than 500,000 registered nurses are anticipated to retire by next year alone.

On its website, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing says “one of the most critical problems facing nursing and the nursing workforce is the aging of nurses and nursing faculty.” 

Powell said, for him, it’s about pursing his passion.

"Our country is hurting right now and if I can do anything to help, then throw me in,” Powell said. “I’m ready."