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Bring back the Nurse Corps to fight coronavirus

Bring back the Nurse Corps to fight coronavirus
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Almost 80 years ago, America faced an enormous health crisis. The conflagration of World War II was spreading across the globe, creating a dire need for nurses. In response, we created a program called the Nurse Corps. From 1943 to 1948, 124,000 nurses got expedited training to provide life-saving care to soldiers, sailors, and civilians worldwide.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating another nightmare shortage of front-line health care workers. It’s time to revive the Nurse Corps for the modern age. Here’s how it would work. 

First, Nurse Corps members would train to become a medical assistant, patient care technician, or certified nursing assistant. These programs usually last from several weeks to a few months. The Corps program would cover tuition, fees, supplies, and offer a monthly stipend. This first step constitutes Corps members’ preparation for the urgent fight at hand.

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Next, Corps members would go to work supporting doctors and nurses fighting the spread of COVID-19. They would serve as health care support workers, carrying out basic patient care tasks, testing, and patient intake, and receive a stipend until the pandemic subsides. Critically, this phase of the redesigned Nurse Corps is indefinite. We don’t know how long the explosion in demand for health care will last, so flexibility is critical. Corps members would work in these support roles until demand subsides.

Finally, as the pandemic gets under control and the strain on the health care system lowers, care facilities would release Corps members from their duties. Corps members would then transition into further education, whether a certificate program to become a Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse or associate degree in nursing to prepare for a career as a Registered Nurse. Colleges admitting Corps members for this phase would be required to count their work during the pandemic toward credits needed for their new program. During their initial assistant training, Corps members’ tuition, fees, supplies, and books would be covered, and they would continue to earn a stipend for living expenses. 

The Department of Health and Human Services currently administers a small version of the original Nurse Corps program. Now, there are approximately 2,000 active members. That’s not nearly enough to meet the demands of this moment in history. Congress should appropriate enough money to expand the Corps a hundred-fold, and triple the current monthly stipend of $1,419. 

Currently, Nurse Corps members can only complete their post-licensure service requirements in facilities designated as having a critical shortage of nurses. Since the entire country is in crisis, Congress should ensure that Corps members can serve at any health care facility in need of their services, and provide additional financial incentives to place Corps members in facilities with especially dire needs.

Many states and regions were facing acute nursing shortages well before the pandemic. A radical expansion of the Nurse Corps will also address that long-term problem after COVID-19 subsides. As the population ages, more nurses will be needed for both acute and long-term care. But many nursing and medical assistants currently find it difficult to upgrade their skills due to time and cost constraints. The new Nurse Corps would provide members with the financial resources and time they need to advance careers as a practical or registered nurse, expanding and strengthening the profession. 

COVID-19 is straining the capacity of our health care system to its limits — and beyond. Let’s support our current nurses and doctors with a wave of new support, and ensure our nursing workforce is strong for the future. 

Ivy Love is a policy analyst with the Center on Education & Skills (CESNA) within the Education Policy program at New America.