Coronavirus in Bay Area: Nurses trying to answer call for COVID-19 service finding they aren't needed

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Bay Area nurses, trying to answer urgent calls for their help during the pandemic, are finding in many cases that their services just aren't needed. In fact, some hospitals have instituted hiring freezes and there are worries of future layoffs.

"If you're a nursing school graduate or a medical school graduate, we need you!" It's a mantra that Governor Gavin Newsom has uttered often.

The pleas have been coming from the top down, since the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, urgent calls for nurses to meet the need -- an expected surge of cases in California hospitals.

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But the reality of trying to answer the call has been frustrating for RN's like Angela Williams. Layed off from her job in cosmetic surgery, the 29-year-old has a bachelors degree and was president of her 2018 nursing class, but can't find work in a hospital.

"I actually put in over 300 applications in the Bay Area," said Williams. "It's hard being a registered nurse, unemployed during a pandemic. It kind of feels like being a firefighter, the house is on fire and I'm watching Netflix."

Williams told us she has wanted to be a nurse since age 12, when she was hospitalized for several weeks after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She said she doesn't remember much, except for the nurses. "They taught me how to take care of myself, comforted me in a difficult time," said Williams. "Their skill was unmatched and they showed love and compassion I had never seen outside of my family. I knew that one day I had to be in a position where I could offer the same."

But John Muir Health and other Bay Area hospitals systems, including Sutter and UC San Francisco, just haven't seen a significant surge in COVID-19 patients.

They did, however, plan for one.

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UC San Francisco Medical Center is about two-thirds full, with some 245 empty beds by design in case there is a surge.

But with so many empty beds, hospitals just aren't hiring nurses. Right now, it's all about re-deploying.

"We were planning for the very worst. We were planning for the New York scenario," said Michelle Lopes, Senior Vice President, Chief Nurse Executive for John Muir Health. "Early on, we did reach out to retired nurses. We started planning for how do we bring new graduate nurses, and nursing students into our work force, but we've just found we haven't had the need. We've had the resources within our own teams to manage the volume of patients we're seeing."

That said, Lopes encouraged nurses like Williams and current students to stay patient and optimistic about their future job prospects, especially if there is a future surge of novel coronavirus cases, something no one is wishing for.

Still, Williams plans to stay ready if and when she is called.

"I've done extra training since the pandemic started, just to make sure I'm more prepared in case I do get that call to go into a hospital," said Williams. "So it's hard to hear that we're needed, but just can't get hired."

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