HONOLULU (KHON2) — Hundreds of recent nursing program graduates may soon be helping Hawaii’s hospitals deal with the huge surge in COVID patients. Meanwhile calls are going out for experienced nurses from the mainland or any not already working on-island.

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Always Investigating has long tracked problems with health-care access and shortages of doctors and nurses. The nursing shortage in particular is being felt most sharply as hospitals hit their max capacities with COVID. Getting new graduates into the hospital systems has been a challenge in the past, but a crisis program is building an emergency bridge.

Nursing programs across Hawaii, from community colleges to state and private universities, turn out about 400 graduates every year. Then comes the job hunt.

“In the past couple of years in Hawaii, it has been a challenge for new graduates in Hawaii to land those acute care jobs in hospital settings,” explained Pamela Smith, chair of the Hawaii Pacific University Nursing Department. “They’re just few and far between.”

Long-term care, home health and community-based clinics hire lots of the graduates, meanwhile.

“We are able to provide enough jobs in our state for the nurses we are training, however the hospital jobs seem to be in high demand,” said Laura Reichhardt, director of the Hawaii State Center for Nursing. “That’s why sometimes new nursing grads say there are no jobs, but it’s because they’re just looking in that one area and not both.”

The COVID crisis has quickly and drastically raised the urgent need for help, as hospitals in Hawaii topped 105 percent of staffed-bed capacity this week, with nearly 1 in 5 patients in for COVID. A new program by the Hawaii State Center for Nursing and the Healthcare Association of Hawaii aims to link new-grad nurses with surge hospital jobs ASAP.

“This waiver under the emergency proclamation does allow them to get some work experience while they’re still waiting to complete their final certifications or their boards,” explained Hilton Raethel, president of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii.

They may help with things like entry screening, or learn on the floor under supervision of licensed and qualified staff

“I understand that it takes extra work for our hospitals and nursing facilities to take on new nurses,” Raethel said, “but this is the time when we need to make that effort.”

The Queen’s Medical Center has been a leader in entry-level training, nearly tripling the number of new-grad nurses it has taken on from as few as 30 annually a couple years back to 90 or 100 a year more recently. Queen’s plans to look at the new emergency candidate pool, too.

“We’ll probably bring any interested new graduates in as nurse interns and have them work as extenders for nurses that need those extra pair of hands,” said Mimi Harris, Queen’s chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care. “It’s so important because really they are our future, and we want to keep our local nurses here in Hawaii.”

“Our students are ready,” Smith said. “They’ve prepared for this moment.”

“New-grad nurses are well prepared to care for patients in all settings of care,” Reichhardt said, “and they’re a very qualified, competent resource.”

The emergency outreach isn’t just for new nurses.

“If you’re not working for whatever reason and also available to respond, we can also use that same survey to help those people move into roles,” Reichhardt said.

Within hours of opening the program signup Wednesday, more than 230 people had submitted the web application. Meanwhile the Healthcare Association of Hawaii has given the governor’s office a request to submit to FEMA seeking hundreds of experienced nurses from off-island.

“At the rate the infections are increasing and the rate our hospitalizations are increasing, we have a need for both highly qualified nurses from the mainland through these federal resources,” Raethel said, “and we can also utilize the nursing students as well in a variety of tasks.”

Queen’s usually brings in off-island temp nurses for the fall flu season, and with COVID atop that, they estimate 60 experienced nurses are needed for this surge. Queen’s is actively working on traveling-nurse hires now.

“As private hospitals we’re all going to have to have backup plans as well,” Harris said, “but if the Healthcare Association is successful in being able to procure resources, we’ll definitely look at taking advantage of that.”

Click here to apply for the Hawaii State Center for Nursing’s emergency recruitment.

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