Student nurses joining Alberta hospitals eager to ease Omicron pressure

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Student nurses joining the front lines of Alberta’s strained health-care system during the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic are eager to help ease the pressure on provincial hospitals.

“Every unit has a bit of a different plan for us but we’re hoping it puts more bodies in the workforce,” said Bobbie-Jo MacMillan, a fourth-year nursing student at the University of Calgary who is now employed in the initiative.

“We need nurses,” MacMillan said. “I’m not going to wait until it’s easier. This is my passion.” 

Alberta Health Services has called in 610 student nurses to help provide care at hospitals as the Omicron wave creates staffing shortages and increasingly high numbers of COVID patients are admitted to hospitals.

Students doing their final practicums are being hired as undergraduate nursing employees, gaining academic credit while honing their clinical skills. They will earn $27.68 per hour under a collective agreement.

The nurses will come from universities across the province. They will be matched to areas of greatest need, including inpatient wards and emergency departments.

The paid practicums were announced last week as part of a series of measures aimed at maximizing staffing capacity amid an Omicron-driven labour shortage.

About five per cent of AHS staff are now out sick on any given day and between 18 to 20 per cent of shifts are being missed due to COVID-19. 

As of Wednesday’s update, there were 1,418 people with COVID in Alberta hospitals, as the number of hospitalized patients hit another pandemic high.

The project has been in development since December when Alberta began bracing for the impact of the fifth wave.

‘To their full scope’

AHS asked universities for help with the anticipated staffing crunch, said Zahra Shajani, associate dean of undergraduate practice education with the University of Calgary’s faculty of nursing.

About 120 students at the U of C have signed on, she said.

The students will work in wards across the province, providing a much-needed “buffer” during the fifth wave, she said. 

“The aim definitely was to increase capacity within the acute-care system,” Shajani said. “But with the numbers, COVID is everywhere, in every unit.”

Each undergraduate nursing employee will work with a supervisor — known as a nurse preceptor — and a faculty adviser throughout their 388-hour contract, she said.

The students are coming into their placements with hundreds of hours of clinical experience. 

“They entered nursing during the pandemic so this is their reality,” Shajani said.  “Now they just get to practise to their full scope.”

Reagan Pomponio, 21, just started her practicum at the rapid-access unit at South Health Campus in Calgary. 

She said she was keen to get her foot in the door but the work can feel daunting, especially after a degree marked by stints of online learning.

“It definitely puts a lot of pressure on the students,” Pomponio said. “I feel like we’re required to have this enhanced knowledge about everything, but the preceptors and everyone else on the unit have been very supportive.” 

Reagan Pomponio, 21, is doing her practicum in the rapid-access unit at South Health Campus. (Submitted by Reagan Pomponio)

Pomponio said she is working alone more than ever before but a supervisor is always close by to ensure her patients are well cared for.

“It’s really great to start transitioning, gaining independence and more confidence in my practice.”

AHS has hired more than 100 student nurses from the University of Alberta’s faculty of nursing.

Training during the pandemic will leave the nurses uniquely prepared for their careers, said Diane Kunyk, acting dean of the nursing faculty.

The nurses will also provide much-needed energy as other health-care workers grow exhausted after months on the front lines of the pandemic, Kunyk said.

“We really wanted to step up as best as we could to help people in the system,” she said. 

‘All we’ve known’

MacMillan, 21, is now working regular 12-hour shifts inside the postpartum unit at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary — doing her rounds, checking vital signs and helping new mothers feed their babies. 

She has a passion for postpartum care, describing the ward as “the happiest place in the hospital.”

Even in that ward the pandemic has made itself known, with infected patients in quarantine and close contacts forced into isolation, MacMillan said. 

“I wasn’t very far into my nursing education when the pandemic started,” she said. It’s just been all we’ve known during nursing school.” 

“We have a lot of knowledge … and we intend to use that and continue to grow.”



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