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Amid Relaxed Regulations, Hundreds Of Nurses Prep To Come Back To Work

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Hundreds of Kentucky nurses have taken steps to return to work as the COVID-19 spreads and stresses healthcare facilities across the state.

Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order in late March relaxing the requirements for registered or licensed practical nurses to get their expired licenses reinstated in order to bolster the state’s stock of frontline healthcare workers. More than 200 have, and nearly 100 more have applied and are awaiting confirmation, according to information provided by the Kentucky Board of Nursing.

“Nurses are hardwired: when they hear a call to work, they want to help,” said Jessica Estes, the executive director of the Kentucky Board of Nursing. “That’s why they’re here in the first place.”

Nearly 400 other nurses that live out of state, who have yet to take licensure exams or have not yet completed a background check have also been granted a license to work temporarily in Kentucky under Beshear’s order.

And some 1,300 nurses — many who work at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, or Deaconess Midtown Hospital in Evansville, Indiana — have also sought an emergency license in order to serve patients who live in Kentucky via telehealth.

Estes said the response from nurses seeking a license to work during the pandemic has been greater than officials expected. But it’s still difficult to know if it’s enough.

“I don’t know if any state can say they have enough even on a good day, certainly not in a pandemic” she said. “When we hit the peak … we don’t know what the demand will be.”

More than 2,200 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Kentucky, and 122 people had died as of Wednesday evening. Officials expect the peak to be weeks away. Earlier this month, Jefferson County healthcare workers accounted for nearly 10 percent of all positive cases in the state.

Estes said there are more than 95,000 nurses licensed in Kentucky, but it’s unclear if all of those nurses are actually working in the state. The pandemic puts nurses in high demand and she believes many in Kentucky are being recruited to work out of the state in places considered coronavirus hotspots. 

In Kentucky, officials are working to ease the burden as best, and safely, as possible to allow nurses to come back to work, or get to work as quickly as possible.

Only nurses who are considered in good standing are being reinstated or issued a temporary license. And for new nurses that are unable to take final exams or complete criminal background checks due to facilities being closed, their licenses depend on their ability to eventually pass their exams and background check.

As the pandemic continues, Estes expects more nurses will answer the call to help. But, nurses are a finite resource, and as the virus keeps spreading she worries if there will be enough to care for the sick.

“We don’t know what the impact will be,” she said. “Even in the best scenarios, we don’t know.”

The risks of getting sick and the lack of personal protective equipment only add stress to the job that can already be mentally taxing and require long hours, Estes said.

“I’ve never seen anything as concerning or difficult to get your mind wrapped around,” Estes said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t know anyone would say they are excited about working in a risky environment.”

The Kentucky Nursing Association is offering access to an array of mental health support resources, which can be found online here.

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.