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Arkansas Speeds Up Nurse Certification To Help Struggling Health Care System

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's go to Arkansas now. Like so much of the country, the coronavirus is surging out of control there. Hospitals are having a hard time keeping up with the outbreak. And that's prompted Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to order graduating nursing students be fast-tracked into the state's medical workforce. Jacqueline Froelich of member station KUAF in Fayetteville reports.

JACQUELINE FROELICH, BYLINE: Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Arkansas are breaking new records almost every day now. Intensive care units like this one at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville are stretched. Nearly 40% of ICU beds in the state are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Critical care nurse Aaron Beckham has worked at this COVID unit since last March.

AARON BECKHAM: And sometimes the nurse and even respiratory therapy may be the only humans that are in with the patient when they're expiring. So we may be the only - you know, the last person holding their hand as they pass away.

FROELICH: But nurses like Beckham are in short supply. Not only are they having to work long hours; some are getting sick. At the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences system, Chancellor Cam Patterson says they've had trouble keeping up.

CAM PATTERSON: And to give you a sense of the magnitude of this problem, just at UAMS alone, we have almost 400 employees who are currently under quarantine. So those are 400 employees who cannot be at the bedside to manage patients.

FROELICH: For some nurses, burnout is setting in.

Trenda Ray is the chief nursing officer at UAMS Health.

TRENDA RAY: They're tired. It's not what they wanted to do. This was not the specialty of nursing that they wanted to practice. And so we have seen some of them leave.

FROELICH: University of Arkansas nursing student Hayden Gilbert isn't deterred by any of this. Despite the pandemic, he's pushing ahead and looking forward to helping out.

HAYDEN GILBERT: I know nursing is something I want to do for a long time, and I'm not wavering from it. I'm in too deep now.

FROELICH: It won't be long. Gilbert graduates soon, and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson wants him in the workforce quickly. He signed an order to expedite the issuance of nursing licenses. It used to take several weeks. Now it will be just days. The state is also waiving the application fee for him and 1,100 other nursing school grads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASA HUTCHINSON: We need to get those nurses on board quickly. We'll make it easier for those nurses to enter the profession and go to work at a time that their talents, their heart is critically needed.

FROELICH: Gilbert says he's a little frightened by all this, but the 21-year-old says he's ready to work after graduation this month. He's already been hired as an emergency room nurse resident at Washington Regional.

GILBERT: Us new nurses - we're still headstrong, and we're still trying. And we're motivated because we want it to go back to normal.

FROELICH: Gilbert knows once he gets on the job, it's not going to be easy but will make a difference, especially right now as medical staff all across the state have worked nonstop for months.

For NPR News, I'm Jacqueline Froelich in Fayetteville, Ark.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEON NOX AND POWERNERD'S "TWISTED GETAWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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