WATERTOWN — In celebration of National Nurses Week, which begins each year on May 6 and ends on Florence Nightingale’s birthday, May 12, soon-to-be graduates of the nursing program at Jefferson Community College are reflecting on the past four semesters and looking to the future.
Grace A. Matthews has always known nursing was the career for her. Fellow students Jennifer L. and Georgia L. Barton, mother and daughter, respectively, also enjoy the challenges of their chosen paths and the fact that nursing keeps them on their toes. Jennifer Barton was a teacher prior to joining the nursing program, and said she wanted to have more of an impact on the lives of others. The two say going through the program at the same time has pushed them to be better and brought them closer together.
All three will join the nursing workforce at Samaritan Medical Center.
“For this group in particular, we struggled a little bit coming into this. We were challenged due to the pandemic having our first semester virtual for the majority,” Mrs. Matthews said. “We weren’t able to be in person and so we had virtual clinicals, which is not the same, so coming into it as second-semester students we had to play catch up.”
While the pandemic put pressure on the new nursing students, it put even more on registered nurses working amid many unknowns. The pandemic stressed nurses nationwide as hospitalizations surged and patient needs increased, causing demand for nurses to soar.
Before the pandemic, nursing shortages fluctuated due to various factors. Starting in March 2020, the nursing workforce — the largest group of health care professionals in the country — suffered even more losses.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 194,500 average annual openings for registered nurses between 2020 and 2030, with employment projected to grow 9%.
Samaritan will soon be hiring graduating nurses, including Mrs. Matthews and Jennifer and Georgia Barton. The hospital hired 11 graduates in January from JCC and Canton-Potsdam Hospital who are now finishing orientation, and 24 more graduates will be hired by the end of the summer.
“We are getting back, but we still will have open nursing positions,” said Samaritan’s Chief Nursing Officer Jacqueline A. Dawe. “We had a lot of nurses retire from the industry once the pandemic started and then we had a lot of staff go traveling, they became traveler nurses. We’re not unique; a lot of the hospitals experienced this nationally as well.”
In November, Nursing Schools Almanac ranked JCC the No. 3 associate program nursing school in New York, out of 68 SUNY nursing programs. Samaritan is in the top 25% of hospitals for quality. The hospital provides clinical support for the college’s program and in turn employs graduates.
“Although we have not seen it here, other programs are seeing a decline in enrollment in nursing because people are afraid of COVID and don’t want to be exposed to it, so several programs in New York state are actually decreasing enrollment,” said Dr. Marie A. Hess, nursing instructor at JCC. “We’re very fortunate that ours is increasing and we still have a tremendous amount of students that would like to come into our program. I think the nursing shortage is going to continue or perhaps even might get worse if we can’t get people to come into the programs and feel safe to go out and practice.”
In December, Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul opened the application period for the Nurses For Our Future Scholarship, which is covering tuition for 1,000 new or current health care workers to earn an associate degree in nursing or Bachelor of Science in nursing at a two-year or four-year New York public college or university. When the application portal opened, the state reported more than 9,300 openings for registered nurses in New York.
Amid a surge in recruitment efforts, Samaritan announced in August a $15 minimum wage — a 19% increase from the previous $12.61 per hour. At the time, Samaritan had 452 open positions for full-time, part-time and casual jobs — including certified nursing assistants, home health aides and licensed practical nurses, as well as positions in food and environmental services, registration, billing and office support.
According to Leslie M. DiStefano, director of communication and public relations, Samaritan usually hovers around 175 to 200 job openings at any given time.
As recruitment continued last year, hospital systems faced a new challenge — staff resignations over mandated COVID-19 vaccination.
“At a time where we were so pleased to report that we raised our minimum wage and we were seeing increased job acceptance offers and things of that nature, now the mandate has really slowed some of that for us, where people are no longer accepting or they are rescinding their offers,” Ms. DiStefano said in September. “So it’s an interesting domino effect that I’m not sure we were even thinking about.”
Since the pandemic began, Lewis County Health System has lost 34 staff members due to resignations and 15 who were terminated because of the vaccine mandate in September.
“There is a health care worker shortage that was in existence before the pandemic and the pandemic only made it worse. There’s a lot to do still,” Lewis County Health CEO Gerald R. Cayer told the Times last month. “All of these challenges are not unique to a single health care system. It is the norm in New York state and the country.”
Other JCC nursing students soon to graduate and start at Samaritan include James I. Pink and Kari L. Hogan. Originally, Mr. Pink wanted to be a pharmacist, but after moving with his family out the area and returning to the north country, he became drawn to the versatility of nursing. For Mrs. Hogan, she said she was at a crossroads as her kids were getting ready live on their own. She knew she wanted to go back to school and figured she’d give nursing a try — a decision she’s glad she made.
The soon-to-be graduates feel like the two-year JCC nursing program has prepared them for nursing careers.
“Not every experience is textbook. It’s not what you read, it’s not the perfect scenario and it’s never going to be the same situation,” Mrs. Matthews said. “And sometimes you have to take a skill and you’re going to do it differently than you normally would because you have to accommodate for that patient and their needs.”
Mrs. Matthews will be going into critical care, while Mrs. Hogan, Mr. Pink and Georgia Barton will go to mental health once they get to Samaritan. Jennifer Barton plans to join the medical-surgical team.
“It’s nice that we know what to expect because we have done our clinicals at Samaritan, so we know what we’re coming into and have relationships already with some of the staff,” Mrs. Hogan said.
JCC nursing faculty have both clinical and real-life experiences, and the college features state-of-the-art labs for simulating patient care. The college partners with both Samaritan Medical Center and Lewis County General Hospital to offer clinical experiences for students.
JCC remains the only community college in the region to offer a nursing degree program in two formats: both a traditional weekday format and a weekend format. Accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, JCC’s nursing degree program can be completed in two years.
Each year, there are two graduation dates for JCC students. For the weekend program, about 23 students typically graduate in December.
For the traditional four-semester program, students graduate in May, and this year, JCC has 35 graduates, one of the college’s larger classes. For the May graduates, their pinning ceremony will take place May 19, and then they’ll need to take their boards.
Registered nurses are crucial in helping to deliver care for patients, and for the 20th year in a row, nursing was rated as the most trusted profession in 2021, according to a Gallup poll.
“I want to give a big shoutout and thanks to nurses and anyone in the health care field, but especially nurses, because they always work hard, but they’ve worked so hard in the last two years during the pandemic,” Mrs. Dawe said. “A good and robust nursing workforce is paramount to the health of a community.”