MISSOULA – Some health-program students at Missoula College of the University of Montana are joining the battle against the coronavirus pandemic even before they graduate.
MC health programs include nursing, respiratory care, medical assisting, surgical technology and radiology technology. Dan Funsch, interim associate dean and chair of the Department of Health Professions, said all programs have rearranged schedules for classes and clinicals to move students into the area workforce as rapidly as possible. All classes and labs also have been moved online.
“Many of our students have jumped into the workforce even before graduation,” Funsch said. “We are doing whatever we can to facilitate this process. COVID-19 has created an acute need to immediately bolster our frontline health care professionals.”
He said the college’s health programs have suspended student clinical rotations at this time to conserve valuable personal protective equipment for area health care professionals already in the workforce. The college also wanted to avoid exposing students to unnecessary risks.
Additionally, MC’s Respiratory Care Program maintains four ventilators for training, and those were made available to area hospitals. The Surgical Technology Program also has donated nearly 1,000 masks, gloves and gowns to area health facilities.
Echo Hermsmeyer, a graduating radiologic technologist from Joliet, recently was hired for a full-time position at Clark Fork Valley Hospital in Plains.
“Leaving Missoula College early has been bittersweet,” Hermsmeyer said. “But it has allowed us to contribute to the hospitals and help people in this time of need. We need to focus on something more important than school right now – human lives.”
Linda Barnes, the MC Nursing Program director, said the Montana Board of Nursing has joined forces with the Montana University System to reinforce the state’s supply of nurses. The board has proposed modifying its rules to hasten the graduation and placement of nursing students.
Barnes said at an emergency meeting of the Montana Board of Nursing on March 24 the board proposed a temporary permit and amending rules to allow more simulations in lieu of clinical rotations.
“These measures were designed to expedite the supply of nurses entering the workforce,” she said.
The board also proposed extending temporary licenses to six months instead of the standard three months. Barnes said the new graduates seeking temporary licenses must be employed and have their new supervisors sign the applications. The new licenses allow them to work half a year before taking the national nursing certification exam.
“The board proposes that in extenuating circumstances the amount of simulation that replaces clinical experiences will be up to the individual programs,” Barnes said. “In other words, nursing programs would be allowed to go over 50% in simulation if they feel we are meeting student outcomes.”
MC Dean Tom Gallagher said radiology tech students who will graduate in May already are working in area hospitals throughout western Montana via limited licenses until they can take their national certification exams. Medical assisting students also are completing their final internships, and many will immediately join the workforce.
“We are moving things faster than normal,” Gallagher said, “but this is an unusual time.”