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Connecticut is losing nurses — and state universities can’t replace them

Laura James

Connecticut was facing a nurse shortage before the pandemic. Now, the vital medical personnel are leaving faster than ever — and Connecticut universities can’t fill the positions.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Erica Phillips to discuss her article, “Demand for nurses is urgent. CT’s colleges and universities can’t keep up,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: You say there's a need for 3,000 nurses in Connecticut, but only 2,000 graduated this year. How come? Because we've known that we've been facing a nursing shortage in Connecticut for years. Is it the pandemic?

EP: Yeah, there's a combination of things. You're right that there's been a shortage of nurses for years. So this isn't necessarily a new issue. What's new is that the pandemic sort of made it more acute. You had, you know, the nurses in the state under extreme stress. They were getting sick, some of them decided to take traveling assignments, which have been in great need during the pandemic, and others decided to leave acute care settings like the hospital and so forth, and go to more 9-to-5 gigs in surgical centers or doctor's offices, things like that. So there's been this great shift within the nurse workforce that has created, you know, a lot of additional need. That combined with the fact that there's an aging population — a lot of the nurses themselves are aging, and going to be moving out of the workforce soon. And so the demand has been going up because of this confluence of factors.

WSHU: And the burnout has been much faster than we had anticipated.

EP: That's what folks in the field are saying, yeah, especially during this period.

WSHU: So what are we doing about that? The universities and the state, what are we doing to try and deal with that situation?

EP: Yeah, it's tough, right? Because you can't just flip a switch overnight and increase the capacity of nursing training programs. So, it's a longer term goal that they're aiming for. And it's, again, sort of a combination of things. We had a piece of legislation passed this session that is going to call on the Governor's Office of Workforce Strategy to develop a plan to expand nurse training programs in the state. Within the next couple of years, they'll have the plan ready. But in addition to that, some of the hospitals themselves are creating partnerships with schools to expand the amount of training that can be done. Yale New Haven has a partnership, and some of the other ones are doing, you know, even starting as early as high school students to get folks trained to be nurse assistants. So there's sort of a wide range of stuff that is in the story.

WSHU: Now, one of the pieces of legislation that passed this year was one that expanded mental health services. How is that going to affect nurses and the training of more nurses? Is there any money for that in that bill?

EP: Yeah, the mental health bills this session were very wide ranging, right. And among the things that they provided for was just an expansion of mental health services, which means more positions for nurses who might be ready for something more on the 9-to-5, you know, a less stressful, less crazy work schedule. But also, it provided for some incentives for people to get into that work, such as some help with their loans, other things to kind of entice workers into that type of nursing field and support them once they're in it, which is another piece of this. So if you have a workforce that's experiencing a lot of burnout, a lot of the conversations that are happening right now are, how do we support people who are career nurses and nurse assistants to make sure that they don't burn out, they don't leave the field? And so there were a lot of sub-components addressing that kind of thing as well, in both legislation and kind of among nurse associations in the state, and schools and hospitals and so forth. That's a big conversation that's happening.

WSHU: Now, you said that Yale New Haven is putting more money into nursing and training nurses. What about other programs? Do we have anything to encourage more people to enroll for nursing and incentives to keep them in nursing schools?

EP: Well, it's interesting that you asked that because there are actually lots and lots of people who are interested. The problem is not a lack of interest. This year, Connecticut colleges and universities had well over 13,000 qualified people who applied for their programs, and they had fewer than 3,000 seats available for those students. So there's actually, you know, thousands of students being turned away who are interested in doing this work. That's sort of bittersweet, right? Because it's very inspiring to know that there is a young generation of people that feel really called to this work, and making sure that there's the capacity to provide them the education and to get them into the field, that's the challenge that the state is facing. And there's certainly people working on it, you know. So that's why I say it's not necessarily a switch you can flip overnight. But there are a lot of efforts going into expanding the seats for all of these young, and actually some mid-career people as well, who are interested in getting into the nursing field and helping people.

WSHU: Now there were some accelerated programs that were put in place during the pandemic to try and get nurses through their programs faster. How did that work out? And where do we stand as far as that's concerned now?

EP: Yeah, some of those folks actually have been completing those programs, getting into the field as nurse assistants. So that stuff is happening. You're right. That was sort of one of the early things that was launched, and it has been getting folks out there and into the field. Again, with those folks, there's especially a concern that you don't want to burn them out right away, because it's such a stressful situation right now. So that's another part of the conversation. But yeah, some of those classes of accelerated programs have been graduating and getting into the field.

A previous version of the story implied that nursing students in accelerated programs could become RNs in 15 months. Students can become Nurse Assistants in that time.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.