Local nursing students are bravely preparing to enter the medical field during an unprecedented health crisis.
The 43 fourth-semester registered nursing students at Cuesta College are on track to graduate this May, according to the college's Director of Nursing Marcia Scott.
"This COVID pandemic has certainly changed the way we do nursing school," Scott said.
Instead of classroom lectures and in-person patient-care experiences, students are earning required clinical hours by watching virtual scenarios.
"Students problem-solve those patient-care situations, they unfold throughout the day. Maybe the patient's assessment changes, medications change," Scott said. "The faculty give [the students] problem-solving questions to go independently work out and then they all come back and do a briefing together to talk about the best solutions."
Student Cassie Hook says the switch to online case studies and virtual instruction has been seamless.
"The teachers and the staff have done a fantastic job of transitioning our classes online," Hook said.
While much of their schooling is now online, Scott says they will still be able to do in-person patient care.
"This pandemic provides students with a unique learning opportunity to deliver basic, essential and much-needed nursing care for a community among a worldwide pandemic and I can tell you, that's never happened in my lifetime," Scott said.
More than 70 students from across Cuesta's nursing program, including RN and LVN students, have signed up with the San Luis Obispo County Medical Reserve Corps and will volunteer at the alternative care site at the Cal Poly Rec Center.
"We've been working with the Board of Registered Nursing and they will receive full credit for the hours that they volunteer and perform in the alternative health facility," Scott said.
"I have volunteered at the alternative care site at Cal Poly," Hook said. "I am hoping to be scheduled back into our facilities who are supporting us."
Scott says the local hospitals are finding ways for students to learn on the frontlines.
"[Our local hospitals] want every one of them," Scott said. "They are ready to hire them today."
How do these budding nurses set aside fear in a global, deadly pandemic?
"I do have trust and faith in our training," Hook said, adding that proper PPE donning and caring for patients in isolation was covered thoroughly in her schooling at Cuesta.
"I think it's a great privilege and opportunity that as fourth-semester nursing students, we're able to get back to our clinical hours," Hook said.
According to Scott, any nursing students who do not want to work in a COVID-19 setting will have alternatives to complete their clinical hours. However, the majority of students have told her they are excited, a bit nervous but overall, honored to serve patients during this time.
"I'm sure that the students are scared," Scott said. "I also know that they have really rallied and expressed a strong commitment and desire to help out however they can."
Many of the Cuesta College nursing graduates will officially start their careers in Central Coast hospitals.
Cottage Health, which operates hospitals in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Santa Ynez, says it plans to hire 90 new grad RNs in the spring and summer months.
Chief Human Resources Officer for Cottage Health, Cara Williams, says patient needs during the COVID-19 crisis may impact hiring numbers.
"As part of our surge planning, we are prepared to hire additional new grad RNs if needed," Williams said. "The State of CA has temporarily waived licensing requirements for new grad RNs, enabling hospitals to hire if needed for staffing."
Dignity Health's local hospitals plan to hire up to 30 new nurses. Officials say French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo is actively recruiting 8-10 nurses. Arroyo Grande Community Hospital intends to hire five nurses and Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria needs 15 RNs.
Sara San Juan with Dignity Health says the local hospitals value their strong relationships with the nursing programs at Cuesta College and Allan Hancock College.
"It is a benefit to hire these nursing students, many of whom have grown up in our communities, and others that love the area and wish to stay," San Juan said.
Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton and Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, owned by Tenet Health Central Coast, are still determining how many nurses they need to hire.
"Due to the quickly and continuing changing situation with the pandemic, it would be premature to speculate on how many nurses we will look to hire in the future, but we are hopeful as we have had great success in hiring graduates from Cuesta College," said Chief Nursing Officer Robert Cook.
Cuesta College nursing students will graduate on May 22 and take their licensing exams in June.