Regulations Keeping California's Graduating Nursing Students From Assisting in Pandemic

Following other states, an executive order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom could temporarily change regulations and bring 12,000 new nurses into the hospital workforce – but when will it come?

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Melissa Gong was completing her final semester of the nursing program at Cabrillo Community College when COVID-19 brought her studies to a halt. The facility where she was doing clinical training closed its doors to protect patients from potential exposure.

“We're eight weeks from graduation and we are stuck not being able to do anything or really kind of help be an asset to the nurses on the front lines,” Gong said. “They're all out there their risking their lives, their safety and their time with their families to help people. And that's really what we got into nursing to do.”

Gong is not alone. Nearly 12,000 nursing students around the state are stuck in limbo, unable to fulfill the last of their in-hospital training required by law. With a surge of COVID-19 patients expected at hospitals, a lack of medical staff is a real concern.

But students like Gong say they can, and want, to help but are unable to without an executive order from the Governor's office to temporarily ease regulations.

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit spoke with administrators at several California medical schools and learned these graduating nursing students are generally supported by educators and experts in the nursing field.

Earlier this month, the president of Cabrillo Community College, along with dozens of other deans and medical educators from around the state sent letters to the Governor's office and nursing board requesting a handful of temporary regulatory changes. The most notable: lowering the 75-percent in-person training requirement to 50 percent, with the remainder supplemented by simulations.

Gong says that she and her peers don't expect to be performing major or invasive procedures, but that they all have the training and competency to do more fundamental tasks like swapping or basic care.

“I think at this point we're all ready, willing and able to go out and help wherever we can,” said Gong.

Mary Foley, the director of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco, agrees, and says that graduating nursing students could provide critical reinforcements in the weeks and months ahead. It's one of the reasons why she sent a letter urging action by the Vice President of the UC Health System.

“This is not an epidemic, it's a pandemic. And we're learning more every day,” she said. “Right now, this is urgent and I think it's all hands on deck.”

Foley, who has been a nurse for almost fifty years and is the former president of the American Nurses Association, said patient safety always comes first and points to a 2014 study from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing that found no substantial difference between nursing students who graduated from states requiring 75 percent in-person training or 50 percent.

“We know for a fact, based on research, that it's safe,” she told NBC Bay Area. “So that's why I think we're very justified in asking for it.”

But those in a position to address their request, specifically the Governor and Board of Registered Nursing have been largely silent on the matter.

Up until a few days ago, Foley said her and her colleagues had not received even an acknowledgment of their request. Then, on March 23, Gov. Gavin Newsom mentioned an effort to “fast-track” nurses as part of a broader, omnibus medical order.

“”We believe [in] the ability to get fourth-year medical students into the system,” said Newsom. “Get them licensed earlier.”

But when the Investigative Unit reached out to the governor's office for additional details on that order, a spokesman would only say it was “forthcoming.” The Board of Registered Nursing also declined to comment, saying it would have more “up-to-date” information in the days ahead.

In the meantime, medical students and faculty will be waiting to see whether their requests will be answered. The governors of states such as Texas, New Jersey and New York have already passed orders lifting similar restrictions.

Foley says it's a moment that shouldn't be missed, noting that California's nursing students are the medical professionals of tomorrow and their experiences now could save lives during future pandemics.

“I don't think this is the last time this country has to deal with an epidemic or pandemic,” she said. “But it should be the last time we are this unprepared.”

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