4th-year nursing students eager but unable to join the fight against COVID-19

Students nearing the end of their nursing degrees are eager but unable to join the front lines in fighting COVID-19, but efforts are underway to help students finish their programs and eventually work in hospitals.

'Everyone is frustrated and desperate to help,' U of A nursing student says

Mariah Mazer, a fourth-year nursing student at the University of Alberta, is eager to care for COVID-19 patients, but she is a few weeks shy of finishing her degree and has yet to take her licensing exam. (Mariah Mazer)

Mariah Mazer wasn't initially affected when the University of Alberta suspended classes on March 13.

Like other fourth-year nursing students, she was finishing up her preceptor placement — 350 hours spent working under the supervision of a full-time registered nurse at a hospital.

Two days later, she was told to stay home, and there she has remained, unsure about the future of her placement and when she will be able to write the NCLEX-RN exam, the final hurdle to becoming a registered nurse.

Mazer and many peers nearing the end of their nursing degrees are eager but unable to join the front lines in fighting COVID-19.

"Everyone is frustrated and desperate to help," she told CBC News.

"I would love to be using my time to study so I can write the exam earlier, so I can get into the front line sooner and help every way I can."

Students say there are more than 100 U of A nursing students who are close to becoming registered nurses.

Noah Haynes, another fourth-year nursing student stuck at home, said he understands safety and health concerns over sending dozens of nursing students to hospitals, but he is also willing to work if needed. 

"Being able to help out in some way, shape or form is the ideal," he said.

Mazer and Haynes both have about three weeks left in their preceptor placements.

Faculty talking with licensing bodies

In an emailed statement sent to CBC, the university's faculty of nursing said that consistent with other health sciences programs across the country, nursing students are not permitted to work directly with individuals who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 or other flu-like infections.

"These parameters not only ensure students' health and safety but also respect the limited availability of resources in clinical sites such as personal protective equipment," the statement continued.

The statement mentioned the faculty is in talks with licensing bodies about changing requirements for fourth-year students in an effort to get as many qualified nurses as possible through their programs and registered to work.

Some undergrads already working for AHS

An emailed statement from Alberta Health Services said staff are "looking at all possibilities to support nursing students" and working with universities and regulators to support the continuation of clinical placements, "where appropriate and safe."

The statement also said AHS is hiring nursing students "into appropriate roles based on their training and qualification to date," such as health care aides (HCAs) and undergraduate nursing employees (UNEs).

UNEs are nursing students who care for patients under the supervision of registered nurses or registered psychiatric nurses. They are casual employees who earn less than registered nurses.

Taryn Cuthbert, a fourth-year U of A nursing student, landed a coveted UNE position with AHS last year.

Though her preceptor placement is on pause, she continues to work, caring for cardiovascular surgery patients at the Mazankowski Heart Institute in Edmonton.

The Mazankowski Heart Institute is part of the University of Alberta Hospital. (CBC)

A few days ago, she was told the institute's intensive care unit will be accepting COVID-19 patients, whom she could be caring for in a few weeks.

In preparation, she and other undergraduate nurses are completing a condensed two-week training program in critical care.

"We're not all going to be ICU nurses right off the bat," Cuthbert said, "but I do think our skills are valuable in the sense that we can take care of the basic needs of a patient."

Retired nurses to come back

Retired nurses interested in practicing during the pandemic have been contacting their former employers, including AHS and Covenant Health. 

Those employers will send a list of names to the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta (CARNA), said chief professional conduct officer David Kay.

In an email, Kay said CARNA will reach out to those on the lists to begin the process of reinstating practice permits for the pandemic response.

Mazer and Cuthbert said they respect retired nurses' wealth of expertise and experience but worry that older adults are more at risk if they contract COVID-19.

Mazer suggested Canada follow Italy's example of fast-tracking nursing students in order to send recent graduates to help during the pandemic in hospitals.

"I just think we should be utilizing all the young nurses who are really eager to work right now," she said.

In 2010, University of Alberta professor Olive Yonge published the results of a survey filled out by more than 400 nursing students. 

Nearly 70 per cent of the students who responded said they were likely to volunteer during a pandemic if able to do so.


Madeleine Cummings is a digital associate producer who produces stories for CBC Edmonton's website and its afternoon radio show, Radio Active.

With files from Tricia Kindleman