Newswise — EL PASO, Texas — Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the omicron variant of the virus continues spreading rapidly, bringing a new strain to an already burdened health care system. That burden has kept some front-line workers home sick, reducing the capacity to care for patients. But Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso student nurses and alumni remain the light during the dark days of COVID-19.

The El Paso community has reported more than 200,000 positive cases through the duration of the pandemic, over 30,000 of which were breakthrough cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vaccine breakthrough infection happens when a fully vaccinated person gets infected with COVID-19, increasing the possibility of spreading the virus. In the health care field, the chance of breakthrough infections associated with such a contagious virus brings many problems to those trying to care for the ill. 

“Despite the vast majority of us being vaccinated, we definitely have issues with many front-line workers getting the virus,” said Edward Michelson, M.D., chair of Emergency Medicine at TTUHSC El Paso. “While the vaccine has kept health care workers out of the hospital as patients, omicron has kept them away from work.”

Hospitals are seeing an increase in patients, but more health care workers are at home quarantining. It’s a one-two punch that can lead to the burnout of workers who are able to remain on the job. Non-COVID-19 patients are affected too, because medical procedures may be postponed due to short staffing.

Preparing Nurses to Help Now and In the Future

When COVID-19 arrived in the Borderland, the Hunt School of Nursing was prepared to use the pandemic as a learning opportunity for students.

The school has a cross-disciplinary curriculum, preparing its students to work in clinical teams alongside physicians, and has partnerships with every hospital in the El Paso community. Those partnerships include both clinical rotation opportunities and job placements post-graduation. Nursing students began preparing for the front lines of COVID-19, all while completing clinical rotations and a rigorous 16-month accelerated program. The school’s recent graduates, trained for a “new normal” of pandemic care, turned the page on the next chapter of their careers on the eve of the school’s 10-year anniversary. 

Aidan Landa graduated from the Hunt School of Nursing in December. By the end of January, he was working in the emergency room at Del Sol Medical Center, doing something he didn’t know he wanted to do until the pandemic.

“As soon as I got my vaccine, I chose to work with COVID patients because I knew I would be in similar situations in the workforce,” Landa said. “That’s where I fell in love with the ER. It was so impactful to help these patients in their time of need.”

Ten years ago, El Paso County faced a 40% shortage of nurses when compared to the national average. Today, and following the opening of the Hunt School of Nursing, the shortage has been reduced to 20%. To date, the Hunt School of Nursing has graduated more than 1,000 students. A majority of those graduates stayed in the region.  

The Hunt School of Nursing also reduces the nationwide shortage of Hispanic nurses. According to a 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, only 10.2 percent of registered nurses were Hispanic, Latino or Spanish.

In 2021, the Hunt School of Nursing graduated 193 nurses, and 147 of those graduates were Hispanic or Latino. That increase in Hispanic nurses advances the profession by providing nurses who can speak medical Spanish and understand unique customs and cultures. It’s particularly beneficial for the El Paso region, but also for the nation, which continues to see a rapidly growing Hispanic population.  

“The Hunt School of Nursing is unique because it provides realistic, hands-on opportunities in the simulation lab as close to real as they can get, including taking the diversity of the community into account,” said Landa, who was born and raised in El Paso. “When you can work with such a diverse community, you’re able to do what’s best for all patients. That’s the type of community support we should offer as nurses.”

Increasing Nurses to Meet the Need

The nationwide nursing shortage was further impacted when the pandemic triggered nursing retirements and forced some to leave the workforce to care for family or themselves.

Gloria Loera, D.N.P., R.N., NEA-BC, an assistant professor for the Hunt School of Nursing, aims to reduce the shortage by helping nurses expand their current roles or move into leadership positions. Thanks to a $210,320 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board through their Accelerating Credentials of Purpose and Value Grant Program, Dr. Loera will help the local nursing workforce advance through education and extended opportunities.

“As a nurse myself, and being familiar with the current environment, I know nurses are finding themselves overextended,” Dr. Loera said. “By focusing on our master’s degree program, we can provide an opportunity for nurses to increase their leadership skills and support a better quality of work-life balance for themselves and their teams.”

TTUHSC El Paso offers a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Master of Science in Nursing. While the master’s degree program began only two years ago, it’s been effective because of faculty who provide the content, context and real-life situations that prepare nurses to be effective in leadership and administrative roles. By focusing on growing the master’s degree program, Loera said the grant would help increase the number of nurses in the community with leadership and business concepts necessary for the diverse complexities of the healthcare system.

“More master’s degree-prepared nurses means we have more nurses with skills, strengths and abilities to help with decision making,” Dr. Loera said. “Nurses know what patient care delivery is and, as leaders, they have an opportunity to increase effective teamwork and better patient care. As you become a better leader, you see turnover decrease. If you have a decrease in turnover, you have those nurses at the bedside where they’re desperately needed.”

TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved. It is one of only two health sciences centers in the nation designated as a Title V Hispanic-Serving Institution, preparing the next generation of health care heroes, 48% of whom identify as Hispanic.

The Hunt School of Nursing continues the celebration of its 10-year anniversary and contribution to higher education, health care in the Paso del Norte region and combating the critical shortage of nurses in West Texas. Currently, 87% of students from the school are El Paso natives, fulfilling TTUHSC El Paso’s mission to create more educational opportunities for Borderland residents.



Photo 1: Gloria Loera, D.N.P., R.N., NEA-BC, assistant professor at the Hunt School of Nursing.

Photos 2 and 3: Hunt School of Nursing students in simulation training at TTUHSC El Paso. Photos taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.