Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with Wisconsin still trying to bring down the infection rate after a massive spike in cases this fall, the need for healthcare workers has become so dire that the University of Wisconsin System is offering incentives to nursing students who step in and join the effort.
There are 4,000 nursing students across the UW system and if any of them work 50 hours in a healthcare setting between Dec. 1 and Feb. 1, they’ll receive a $500 tuition refund. That work can be in a variety of ways, as a registered nurse, certified nursing assistant (CNA) or medical assistant, and in a variety of settings, in small clinics, long-term care facilities or hospitals.
“The UW System has identified a need and is stepping up to help,” System President Tommy Thompson said in a statement. “As Wisconsin deals with this terrible pandemic, the need for healthcare workers has never been greater. The UW System is glad to be able to offer this incentive to students, who can use this opportunity to learn and to help our fellow Wisconsinites.”
While Thompson’s statement frames the program as an learning opportunity for nursing students that will also aid the state, it portends a darker situation in which Wisconsin’s healthcare system is so strained it must press nursing students into service.
Community spread is driving the need for more healthcare workers, “and the intensity with which folks going about their daily lives were exposed and needing to quarantine and step out of the workforce — their healthcare workforce jobs — in order to not potentially bring COVID into places like hospitals and nursing homes,” Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm said in an online news conference. “So we’re grateful that Gov. Thompson has stood up this program. We hope that some of his nursing students who aren’t already engaged in healthcare work will take advantage of the tuition credit. And we are, as part of pulling every lever that we can to help mitigate staffing shortages, happy to have this additional asset in the form of our nursing students.”
Many nursing students, even undergraduates, already qualify to be or are working as CNAs — a category of workers that was in short supply even before a pandemic swept through the workforce.
“Many nursing students or other health professions students do take jobs in healthcare while they’re still in school, I would say particularly to our nursing students, some of the foundational work that they do qualifies for the training that is necessary to become a CNA,” Palm said. “So there is some natural overlap there, that makes any of them that aren’t already engaged in healthcare work, makes them well prepared to pitch in.”
More than 4,000 Wisconsinites have died from COVID-19 and the healthcare system from the beginning has been at a disadvantage in fighting the virus because of shortages in CNAs and a lack of preparedness for such a health crisis.
“Yes, it is an issue,” Gov. Tony Evers said during the news conference. “But the fact of the matter is, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and we can’t come to the table with a public health system that was underfunded for years, whether it’s at the federal or state level. And so of course, we’re very happy that a lot of these nursing students are taking advantage of this and already are signed up and doing good work. But it tells me as governor, the importance of standing up a solid funded public health system, pre-pandemic, post-pandemic, during pandemic. It certainly makes it difficult to build that public health system up during a pandemic.”
But whatever policy decisions have led to this point, now 18-22 year olds in the state’s six public university nursing programs are being asked to step in and help the state fight a virus that continues to spread mostly unmitigated through Wisconsin communities — with the added incentive of “real-time experience and a $500 tuition refund.”
“This initiative is to help support the workforce,” Dr. Linda Scott, Dean of the UW-Madison School of Nursing, says. “We have a taxed health system, so across the UW System, the six programs came together to look at how we can provide support. During the recess, we’re trying to give our UW students an opportunity and reward the ones already working in healthcare or incentivize the ones who aren’t.”
Scott says 60% of her nursing students already work as CNAs and in an informational session held this week, 75 students attended. UW-Madison has 1,047 nursing students, according to Scott.
“I think the students who are already working and doing it will still have the added benefit of knowing they’re helping,” she says. “If it was already their place of employment they get that sense of contribution as part of what will soon be their profession.”
“For the pre-nursing students, they get the opportunity for experience,” she adds. “Think of it as a community service; they’re engaged in helping our state in a crisis.”