Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the omicron variant has spread rapidly, bringing a new strain to an already burdened health care system. That burden has kept some front-line workers home sick, reducing the capacity to care for patients. But Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso student nurses and alumni remain the light during the dark days of COVID-19.
The El Paso community has reported more than 200,000 positive cases since the start of the pandemic, over 30,000 of which were breakthrough cases. According to the CDC, a vaccine breakthrough infection happens when a fully vaccinated person gets infected with COVID-19, increasing the possibility of spreading the virus. In the health care field, breakthrough infections associated with a contagious virus bring problems to those on the front line.
“Despite the vast majority of us being vaccinated, we definitely have issues with front-line workers getting the virus,” said Edward Michelson, M.D., chair of Emergency Medicine at TTUHSC El Paso. “While the vaccine has kept health care workers out of the hospital as patients, omicron has kept them away from work.”
Hospitals have seen an increase in patients, but more health care workers are at home quarantining. It’s a one-two punch that can lead to the burnout of those able to remain on the job.
Preparing Nurses Now and In the Future
When COVID-19 arrived in the Borderland, the Hunt School of Nursing was prepared to use the pandemic as a learning opportunity for students.
The school’s cross-disciplinary curriculum prepares its students to work in clinical teams alongside physicians – nursing students began preparing for the front lines of COVID-19 while completing clinical rotations and a rigorous 16-month accelerated program. The school’s recent graduates, trained for a “new normal” of pandemic care, began the next chapter of their careers on the eve of the school’s tenth anniversary.
Aidan Landa graduated from the school in December. By January, he was working in the emergency room at Del Sol Medical Center, doing something he didn’t know he wanted to do until the pandemic.
“As soon as I got my vaccine, I chose to work with COVID patients because I knew I’d be in similar situations in the workforce,” Landa said. “I fell in love with the ER. It was so impactful to help patients in their time of need.”
Ten years ago, El Paso County faced a 40% shortage of nurses compared to the national average. Today, following the opening of the Hunt School of Nursing, the shortage has been reduced to 20%. A majority of the school’s more than 1,000 graduates have stayed in the region.
The Hunt School of Nursing also reduces the nationwide shortage of Hispanic nurses. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 10.2% of registered nurses were Hispanic, Latino or Spanish.
In 2021, 147 of the school’s 193 graduates were Hispanic or Latino. That increase in Hispanic nurses advances the profession by providing nurses who can speak Spanish and understand unique customs and cultures. It’s particularly beneficial for the Borderland, but also for the nation’s rapidly growing Hispanic population.
“The Hunt School of Nursing is unique because it provides realistic, hands-on opportunities, and takes the community’s diversity into account,” said Landa, a native El Pasoan. “When you work with a diverse community, you’re able to do what’s best for all patients. That’s the community support we should offer as nurses.”
Meeting the Need
The nationwide nursing shortage was further impacted when the pandemic triggered nursing retirements and forced some to leave the workforce to care for family or themselves.
Gloria Loera, D.N.P., R.N., NEA-BC, assistant professor for the Hunt School of Nursing, is reducing the shortage by helping nurses move into leadership positions. Thanks to a $210,320 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board through their Accelerating Credentials of Purpose and Value Grant Program, Dr. Loera will help the local nursing workforce advance through education and extended opportunities.
“Being familiar with the current environment, I know nurses are finding themselves overextended,” Dr. Loera said. “By focusing on our master’s degree program, we’ll provide opportunities for nurses to increase their leadership skills and support a better quality of work-life balance.”
While the Hunt School of Nursing’s master’s degree program began only two years ago, it’s been effective because of faculty who provide the context and real-life situations that prepare nurses to be effective in leadership roles.
“More master’s degree-prepared nurses means we have more nurses with skills, strengths and abilities to help with decision making,” Dr. Loera said. “As leaders, nurses have an opportunity to increase effective teamwork and better patient care. As you become a better leader, turnover decreases. A turnover decrease results in nurses at the bedside where they’re desperately needed.”
TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved. It is one of only two health sciences centers in the nation designated as a Title V Hispanic-Serving Institution, preparing the next generation of health care heroes, 48% of whom identify as Hispanic.