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At least two university nursing programs in the Bangor area will graduate their students early to get them on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak.
University of Maine nursing students were supposed to graduate on May 9, but the coronavirus’ spread throughout the state quickly nixed in-person graduations. So the school in Orono will instead graduate its 38 senior nursing students on April 27 to give them a chance to become licensed and enter the workforce more quickly, said Kelley Strout, the program’s interim director and an associate professor of nursing.
About 33 of those nurses are expected to work in Maine.
In Bangor, 23 nursing students at Beal College are expected to graduate at the end of this week, said Colleen Koob, the college’s dean of nursing.
The early graduations allow students to take the nationally required test to become a nurse, the NCLEX exam, and start treating patients as the health care system deals with a growing number of coronavirus cases. Students must graduate and complete background check information before they take the test.
But there’s still some uncertainty about when they can take the exam. The state’s two licensing centers where students take the test — one in Bangor and one in Westbrook — are closed due to the pandemic. They’re currently expected to reopen May 1, Strout said.
“We are facing a pandemic with a need for as many frontline nurses as possible,” she said.
UMaine and Beal College join other universities that have chosen to move up graduation for nursing students during the outbreak, which is exacerbated by a nationwide nursing shortage. The outbreak will strain resources further as health care workers responsible for working directly with sick patients are at an elevated risk of getting sick themselves.
Some states, including Vermont, have offered new graduates temporary permits so they can start working immediately after graduating rather than waiting to pass the licensure exam. Massachusetts’ four medical schools agreed to move their graduations up at the request of Gov. Charlie Baker. Others, like California, are running up against state regulations that require in-person clinicals before students can graduate.
UMaine’s students are required to complete 200 hours of clinical work during their senior year, but the program was interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak in mid-March, and many schools suspended internships as they transitioned to online learning. Strout said the graduating students had already completed 50 percent of their clinical hours, the threshold required for the state’s nursing programs to convert the remaining hours into virtual hours.
Maine, through an executive order from Gov. Janet Mills, has made it easier for qualified retired nurses to regain their licenses, allowed nurses licensed out of state to become licensed in Maine more easily and prolonged the lifespan of licenses expiring during the state’s civil emergency. But those measures don’t apply to new nursing school graduates.
The Orono nursing program integrated more coronavirus-related instruction into its curriculum to help prepare students for what it will be like to work during an outbreak. But Strout said the enormity of what the new nurses will face — a population infected with a contagious virus while health care workers contend with a worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment — weighs on her.
“The greatest joy in our program is when the students can celebrate their accomplishments at the end of the semester, and they look happy and relaxed,” she said. “…This group of students isn’t going to experience any of that. We asked them to complete their assignments early so they can get to the front lines.”
UMaine student Nicole Brown said she is ready for the challenge.
“I want to help people and I want to care for people sick with viruses like COVID-19,” she said in an email. “…I’m excited to get my feet wet and see where this journey of nursing takes me in such a hectic time.”
Watch: Should you remove loved ones from care facilities during the outbreak?