As Omicron Surged, Rutgers Nursing Undergraduates Headed to Frontlines

School of Nursing
Susan Salmond (center), executive vice dean and professor at the School of Nursing, BS in Nursing students Anne Vrubliauskas (right), a sophomore, and Abigail Vasquez (left), a junior. Both student corps members served at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, New Brunswick. Photo by Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

COVID-19 was wreaking havoc again in late December and state health officials were worried. The Omicron variant was causing some of the highest case levels since the start of the pandemic, hospital beds were filling up and nurses and other health care workers were getting sick or quarantining because of exposure.

New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, worried about another COVID surge, asked Rutgers and other New Jersey colleges and universities with health sciences programs if they could help tackle the crisis.

“I had an idea, but didn’t know if it would work,” said Susan Salmond, executive vice dean at Rutgers School of Nursing: The Student Nurse Reserve Corps.

Salmond contacted colleagues at RWJBarnabas Health and University Hospital to see if they could use Rutgers volunteer undergraduate nursing students—some with no clinical experience—to perform tasks that require little training, which would then free up professional nursing staff to focus on more complicated patient care.

The hospital leaders were “absolutely thrilled and very appreciative of our outreach,” Salmond said. “And since our students live all over the state, we invited more health systems and hospitals to participate.” These included Atlantic Health and Cooper University Health. Student Nurse Reservists could answer phones, transport patients in wheelchairs and spend time with patients who needed observation.

The Student Nurse Reserve Corps was envisioned as a short-term solution, meeting an urgent need at the height of the holiday season from late December to mid-January. But Salmond said she expects that a majority of students will stay on with the employers in some sort of per diem role.

That’s what happened for Anne Vrubliauskas, a sophomore, who answered Salmond’s call and is now working at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick in a different role, gaining invaluable hands-on training.

“It’s different to be there as an employee rather than a student,” Salmond said. “This is the real world of health care that they’re seeing from the inside. It’s nursing operating in the middle of a crisis.”

When the program began, Salmond was worried that the timing might be bad as many students were about to head home for the winter break. But her concerns were unfounded. Within an hour of her email, she received 38 responses and the number of applicants quickly rose to over 200. The program’s popularity was likely boosted as participating hospitals were able to bring the students on as part-time staff rather than as volunteers.

They created a database of student reserve applicants—detailing their grade level, any previous health care experience and preferred work location—and shared the lists with participating institutions across the state. Within a week, Salmond and her team were able to place over 90 students in hospitals throughout New Jersey.

Vrubliauskas, who has been answering call bells and assisting with basic patient care for more than a month, said she is grateful for what health care workers have done throughout the pandemic and wanted to support them.

“I had a wonderful experience at the hospital because I received a lot of great hands-on learning, and I loved being able to help out. Caring for patients when they are sick and without their families can be tough, especially during a pandemic, but it is also extremely rewarding to provide comfort for these patients and be their advocate,” Vrubliauskas said.  

The initiative is an important example of how an academic health program, like Rutgers School of Nursing, can collaborate with clinical partners to improve both patient care and health sciences education in the state, Salmond said.

Rutgers’ students have supported the health care system since the earliest days of the pandemic. In April 2020, medical, dental, and pharmacy students were among the first in the nation to graduate early to assist with the initial wave of COVID-19 patients.

“Hospitals have been dealing for months with the dual crises of a high-volume of high-risk patients along with staff shortages, with nurses oftentimes feeling unsupported,” said Salmond. “In the ongoing pandemic, many nurses have been feeling like they are drowning. Rutgers School of Nursing has helped provide them with lifejackets in this storm.”

Staff nurses and hospital administrators alike have expressed gratitude not just for the work of the students and the respite they’ve provided, but also for seeing that others cared enough to take action.

“They are so appreciative of the efforts,” said Salmond. “As one hospital CEO stated in a meeting with School of Nursing deans, ‘This program has been a gift.’”