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California needs nurses. So why is the state about to give up 10,000 prospects?

Melody Gutierrez and Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Amid a frantic scramble to open hospitals and increase the number of health care workers, California nursing schools are warning state officials that an estimated 10,000 nursing students are in jeopardy of not graduating, meaning they will be unable help evaluate and treat patients amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Under state rules, nursing students must spend a substantial part of their clinical education in hospitals, but they are barred from doing so now because of hospital lockdown orders. Unless the state loosens its rules, students set to graduate in coming months will find it impossible to become a licensed nurse.

As a result, public and private nursing schools are pleading with Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's Board of Registered Nursing to allow greater flexibility in how students meet their clinical education requirement after many hospitals discontinued training placements because of safety concerns and to focus on the tidal wave of COVID-19 patients.

"I went through 19 months of training and the end is near and everything is coming to a screeching halt," said Ryane Panasewicz, 27, who attends nursing school at West Coast University's campus in Anaheim. "Keeping graduating nursing students out of the health care system at this time will make problems worse."

California has been bracing for an onslaught of COVID-19 patients, with Newsom saying this week that the state will need 50,000 additional beds and many additional health care workers. With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rising daily, nursing schools say the backdrop of their urgent request is clear.

On Wednesday, a Kaiser executive vice president and infectious disease expert said about half of Kaiser Permanente's San Jose hospital has been filled with patients confirmed or suspected to have the new coronavirus, prompting a need to boost staffing. Meanwhile, California has begun leasing medical facilities, with one in Daly City beginning to accept up to 220 COVID-19 patients this week, which will also require more health care workers.


On Monday, Newsom said the state is exploring ways to get nursing students licensed earlier, but no additional details were provided by his administration Wednesday.

The Board of Registered Nursing, an appointed body that enforces laws on nursing education and licensure, has not indicated publicly what changes, if any, it is seeking. Michael Deangelo Jackson, president of the board, and Loretta Melby, the board's acting executive officer, referred questions to a spokeswoman, who declined to comment, saying she expected "more up-to-date information in the coming days."

"We could use these 10,000 nurses right now," said Joanne Spetz, an associate director of research at Healthforce Center at the University of California, San Francisco, which produces supply and demand forecasts on registered nurses in the state. "Getting them out the door and practicing is incredibly important."

The Idaho Board of Nursing last week announced an apprentice program to move nursing students into hospitals and a temporary emergency license for students who are nearing graduation. This month, in response to the pandemic, the Texas Board of Nursing relaxed its rules on how many hours nursing students must work in hospital training rotations.


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