University of Washington Nursing Students Make an Impact on COVID-19 Care

In February, when the coronavirus was starting to spread in communities throughout the United States, Seattle was the first major city to be hard hit. With so many unknowns as to what the city was facing, it was important that the community come together. Anne Hirsch, the associate dean for academic affairs, and Hilaire Thompson and Tatiana Sadak, program directors at the University of Washington’s (UW) School of Nursing, immediately recognized the importance of this moment and were ready to lead the faculty and students during this critical time.

But the academic team was faced with a dilemma. They had 100 graduate nursing students and almost 60 undergraduate nursing students in their last quarter of nursing school, with only months until graduation. The only requirement left for these students was clinicals, and if they could not train in clinics, they were unable to graduate. How in this time of crisis emergency care would they find clinics that had the time and the money to professionally train nursing students and have all the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them safe?

According to Hirsch, it was not an option for these nursing students to not graduate as planned—so since healthcare workers were needed now more than ever, she found a way to address both needs. With support from the CDC Foundation, Hirsch and her team set up a partnership with the nursing school and Public Health-Seattle & King County. The nursing students were able to receive the needed training by supporting the public health department’s COVID-19 response, which needed immediate staffing bandwidth during the crisis.

Finding New Paths for Clinical Training

The first need was the COVID-19 Call Center. The COVID-19 Call Center was established by Public Health-Seattle & King County to gather information from callers and direct them to the right resources or escalate calls to the public health team. Many of the calls assisted community members with finding testing centers and taking intake information for isolation or quarantine. The UW nursing students were getting real-world experience triaging questions and helping potential patient.

The team was also able to coordinate the deployment of nursing students to clinical sites to provide direct patient care in hospitals and clinics. However, having the resources to purchase PPE was key as the nursing students needed a supply of PPE to enter into clinics throughout Seattle.

“It’s absolutely crucial, I cannot say strongly enough how important it is to keep our students in a clinical setting safe, but they can’t graduate without having that clinical experience. It would mean 100 fewer nurses if we weren’t able to have them graduate,” said Hirsch. “We need those nurses now more than ever.”

The next hurdle was training. The staff in the clinical settings were not going to have the time to train nursing students in the midst of the pandemic. The team decided it would be important to have faculty from the nursing school onsite to provide the training to the nursing students. “It’s unusual to have faculty on site, but in this case it made sense. We are in the midst of a pandemic, so we need a different way of teaching,” said Hirsch.

The CDC Foundation provided funding for PPE and faculty for the on-site training for the nursing students. “For our clinical partners, it was an intense and scary time, so it was an additional expense taking on students,” said Hirsch. “Having the faculty on-site to take the responsibility from the staff, so they weren’t training the students, was a gift to give to our clinical partners.”

I cannot say strongly enough how important it is to keep our students in a clinical setting safe, but they can’t graduate without having that clinical experience. And we need those nurses now more than ever.

Building a Long-Term Model for Community Partnership

The next step was to secure the Downtown Emergency Services Center in Seattle as a long-term option for clinical services and training. Through the CDC Foundation’s support, the center hired one of their physicians to be an instructor for the students, Hirsch explained. This center mostly treats underserved populations that are generally older adults with chronic illnesses. There is a great need for health promotion and psychiatric nursing services. “This will be a challenging and rewarding site for the nursing students,” said Hirsch. “This is a good fit now because of COVID-19 and a long-term option for nurse training.”

In the fall, Hirsch said they will continue with undergraduate nurse training at the call center and any other opportunities in the community to support COVID-19 now that they have a model that works—giving the nurses their much-needed training safely and supporting the community. “Many of our students want to work with the underserved populations and make a difference,” said Hirsch. “It’s important that vulnerable populations have access to quality nursing care throughout the pandemic, and I am proud we were able to make that happen.”