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By Mona Dougani

Kate Schauss knew she wanted to enter the medical field since the fifth grade, when her interest in medicine was sparked while dissecting a squid on a school field trip. By her sophomore year of high school, she was certain nursing was the path she would pursue.

Then the pandemic rattled the world in 2020 and she had some doubts.  

“When COVID was really bad, and all the nurses were just working 100 hours straight, getting crazy burn out, I actually kind of second-guessed it,” said Schauss, who will enter her final year at UNC-Wilmington this fall to complete her nursing degree. “Not to the point where I was like ‘I am going to drop out,’ but just reevaluating what being a nurse means.”

Now that vaccines are widely available throughout the United States, and new COVID-19 cases are decreasing in North Carolina and across the country, Schauss realized that her fears had fallen away.

“It definitely inspired me,” said Schauss, who wants to become an emergency room nurse.

Across North Carolina, public university and community college administrators say they have seen a steady interest in enrollment in health-related programs and even a slight uptick in queries about nursing school. Though administrators say it is too soon to definitively tell if COVID-19 inspired more students to enter health care, there could be a correlation. 

“I don’t think I even realized how important nurses were,” Schauss said. “Nurses are such a backbone to health care, and I don’t think people, even nursing students like myself, realized how important the role was. So that appreciation has definitely inspired me to become a nurse and be more proud of that title.”

Lori Byrd, associate director of programs and health sciences for the NC Community Colleges system, said COVID could have spurred more interest in the health care field.

“We’ve certainly never had anything like this happen [before], but we have had other health-related events happen in the past and people do tend to gravitate toward health professions because they want to help, and they want to be involved,” Byrd said in a recent interview.

Steady interest in health careers

The state community college system saw a one percent increase in enrollment for nursing and health sciences programs over the last year, Byrd said. That’s even though nationally, there has been about an 11 percent overall decline for spring enrollment at community college or two-year programs, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. 

At most four-year colleges and universities, students must take certain required courses before being considered for nursing programs.

Louise Fleming, the UNC-Chapel Hill school of nursing associate dean of undergraduate programs, said it could be another year or more before she and administrators on other campuses know whether they’ll see greater interest in nursing and other health care programs as a result of the pandemic.

Some students took time off from school during the pandemic. Others may have lost jobs or been in families that suffered economically and could be delaying plans for college.

“It is possible more are interested, but we also lost some because of COVID,” Fleming said. “It is too early to tell, I think, and of course, we are still in COVID.”

North Carolina has still seen between roughly 600 and 700 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 per day over the past week, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services dashboard. Currently, 53.4 percent of the North Carolina population who are 18 and older have gotten at least one vaccination, as stated by the dashboard.

Nonetheless, the UNC-Chapel Hill nursing school has seen a 19 percent increase in applications for an accelerated program that allows people who already have a bachelor’s degree to add a nursing degree to their resume in just two years.

While that number can catch your eye, Fleming said, it’s not necessarily pandemic-related. The school made recent changes to the program that could have contributed to the higher percentage, too. 

Lynne Lewallen, associate dean for academic affairs for the school of nursing at UNC-Greensboro, is in the “it’s too early to know” camp, too.

“For the way we admit, we would see that increase maybe next year because our students typically enter as freshmen, and we don’t see them until they are sophomores,” Lewallen said.  

UNC-Greensboro currently enrolls 236 students for its program through which a bachelor’s degree in nursing can be attained. That number hasn’t changed for the past two years.

Western Carolina University officials tell the same story of how their number of nursing students has remained steady from year to year.

“Several of the health care majors like nursing don’t admit until the junior year and are capped programs, so the number of nursing students enrolling doesn’t really change from year to year for the capped programs,” Phil Cauley, associate vice chancellor of undergraduate enrollment at WCU, said recently.

Future professionals

The students coming out of high school in the years ahead could be the real barometer on any piqued interest in health care professions such as vaccine development, the study of viruses, public health, respiratory therapy and nursing.

“I suspect that nursing will be on the radar of some high school students where it wasn’t before,” Lewallen said. 

Byrd had similar thoughts.

“You know, I think that we all will see health careers overall remain popular,” Byrd said. “I think that you’re going to see more and more high school students who are investigating health careers.” 

Byrd, Fleming and Lewallen all said they hope there will be more interest in nursing after COVID-19 shined such a harsh light on what a wildly contagious virus can do to the world.

“Because nursing has been put in the public eye in the way it hasn’t been in the last 20 years, I think it is hard to believe that there would not be some effect of more people considering becoming a nurse,” Fleming said. “I certainly hope that is the case, particularly in North Carolina where we face a nursing shortage, and that is expected to worsen with our aging population.” 

For current nursing students, such as Schauss, the pandemic has brought monumental challenges while also presenting unique and rewarding opportunities. 

“Last semester, I worked at the vaccine clinic,” said Schauss, who helped out by giving shots at the Pointe 14 movie theater in Wilmington. “I was administering vaccines and just being there, the people that came in were so appreciative of what we were doing. They were like, ‘You don’t know, like, how happy this makes me to be able to get this vaccine, and the fact that you guys as students in a super historical time are giving these vaccines,’ made me feel really great to be able to do that.”

She said her interest in helping others has intensified since the spring vaccination campaign. 

“I mean, if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that there is a shortage of health care workers,” Schauss said. “Nursing especially is extremely understaffed. And honestly, in my opinion, that is harmful to the patients because their nurse can’t give them the time that they need because he or she needs to go see someone else.”

“If they just got more people into health care, then patients could have more focused care from their nurses and not feel like they’re just another person,” she said. “I feel like it’s so important to just make your patient feel heard and known.”

Mona Dougani

Mona Dougani is a rising senior at Queens University of Charlotte majoring in communications and minoring in journalism. She is an Emma Bowen Fellow with NC Health News this summer.