Hospitals around Aotearoa are grappling with peak hospitalisations and crisis-level nursing shortages due to the Omicron outbreak. The New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) states that understaffing in the nursing sector will only get worse and is calling on the Government to take urgent action to encourage people into nursing careers.
Jen*, a third-year nursing student, who recently completed a paediatric placement for her course, says it has been hectic since Omicron began. “A lot of the nurses were redeployed, including my preceptor.”
Ann*, another third-year nursing student who recently completed her paediatric placement, says there was insufficient staff to preceptor students because of the high number of COVID patients. “You never knew who you’re going to get as a preceptor that day, and Pre-Reg students, who are in their last semester of their degree and new grads had to be prioritised over us, so that was another issue.”
According to Ann, students were doing more ‘back-end’ jobs such as making beds and taking food to patients so the nurses could focus on performing crucial activities. “Sometimes, everything is just hectic and chaotic, and you have to try to help. But that also impacts our learning because that’s not what we’re meant to be doing.”
Jen told Craccum that they used to have a lot of guest lectures from the DHBs but that they have been pulled because of Omicron. “We’re missing a lot of the lectures we need because obviously they’re needed more at the bedside. We’ve had lectures cancelled the day of. It’s just very up in the air right now.”
She says the nursing school has dealt with many students getting COVID and having to make up hours, but they are managing the situation appropriately. “The nursing school has a plan A, B, C, and D. They have multiple plans for whatever happens. They have been supporting students quite well, I’ve found.”
Ann caught COVID twice during her placement, which meant she was only there for one week. “I have to make up those hours during my semester break, which means I only get a week off, which sucks in the long run. But it’s what you have to do.”
But she says she has been supported by nursing school staff. “I was so overwhelmed, and when I was really sick, they made sure that I was all right and told me to take it easy for a couple of days and not do any work.”
Jen says she could see a lot of nurses, even student nurses, getting burned out, having to take on more responsibility doing jobs they typically would not do before. “Last year, we weren’t allowed to go near COVID patients, but this year, they’re like, fine, you can go deal with them.”
When asked about burnout, Jen says it has become normalised for nurses, and that it is often “glossed over”. “No matter how many COVID cases there are, there are still the same number of nurses. So, once cases shot up, the workload did really pile on, and I think many people ended up staying later than they should have.”
Ann says it can be daunting to work in a hospital right now, particularly for students in COVID wards. “Student nurses don’t get paid and put themselves at risk for the experience. I know people who were scared to go home and risk passing COVID to their families.
Heading into her future, Jen hopes the pandemic brings to light nursing shortages. “This didn’t just happen during COVID. We’ve always been really short-staffed. I hope this issue can be addressed so I’m not entering a workforce with such bad conditions. But you have to be willing to roll with the punches these days if you can get a job.”
*names have been changed to protect student’s privacy.