Commentary: Student nurses ready to join the front lines of COVID-19

Elizabeth Merwin

Elizabeth Merwin

The privilege of being a nurse is that you often participate in the most significant moments in the lives of your patients. You see and share in some of their happiest times, and you offer help and comfort during some of their toughest challenges. Nurses truly touch the lives of so many patients and families.  They are crucial to successful health care.
That’s why, amid an international pandemic and a nationwide nursing shortage, I’ve never been prouder to serve as the dean of nursing at The University of Texas at Arlington. In May, as we recognize National Nurses Month, UTA is graduating 365 prelicensure nursing students into the workforce and onto the front lines of COVID-19.
In all this spring, we will confer degrees on about 2,000 graduates of UT Arlington’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation. That includes students who are new to the nursing profession, veteran registered nurses who are earning their bachelor’s of nursing, our graduate programs for nurse practitioners and our public health programs, among others.
If you live in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, there is a good chance that one of the 39,000-plus graduates of our nursing and health programs has touched the lives of you, your friends or your family.

The impact of UTA’s graduates is reflected across the nation and Texas, but especially here in North Texas. Area hospitals and health systems serve as clinical training sites or preceptors for our students, helping fulfill patient care needs in surrounding communities and beyond.
These clinical experiences transform UTA students into better nurses who are prepared to care for you and your loved ones. UTA is grateful for the support of the health care community in the clinical education of our students.
You should know that our nurses entering the workforce to care for you and your loved ones have worked night and day to get to this point. They are talented. They are skilled and compassionate. They know how to think critically. We know they will make a difference, and they will save lives.

We also know that front-line nurses, who are the largest component of the health care workforce, are in need more than ever before. By 2030, the state will have a shortage of approximately 60,000 nurses, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in less than two decades, older adults will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. Our rapidly aging population contributes to the growing need for health care professionals, especially nurses.
The pandemic exacerbates these issues. Nurses are the primary providers of hospital patient care and deliver much of the nation’s long-term care. As the No. 1 producer of baccalaureate-degreed nurses in Texas, UTA is doing its part.
In my 30-plus years as a nurse and educator, I’ve had to prepare my colleagues and students for challenging times. But this era is unique, and we have adapted.
Gov. Greg Abbott recently expanded the nursing workforce by allowing temporary permit extensions for recently graduated nurses who have yet to take the state’s licensing exam. Nursing programs like ours received permission to adjust our nursing instruction so our students could meet their clinical objectives before graduation.
Our health care systems need these nurses now. And our students, who entered the profession knowing they would face some risks, are displaying courage and resilience that should make us all proud.

I have the privilege of leading dedicated faculty and staff who work tirelessly to ensure that Texas is leading the nation in preparing students of nursing, public health and other health professions to meet critical health care missions.
I am confident that the hundreds of new nurses from UT Arlington who stand ready to join the workforce and take care of you and your loved ones are diligent, prepared and ready for the important work ahead.

Elizabeth Merwin, Ph.D., RN, is dean of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at The University of Texas at Arlington.