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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

COVID's toll on health care workers didn't deter these students

Janice Lockett, program chair of nursing at Cincinnati State, teaches nursing students at bedside.
Ann Thompson
Janice Lockett, program chair of nursing at Cincinnati State, teaches nursing students at bedside. Students Chelsey Greer, Naomi Chi and Beth Cornelius look on.

We've been spending the past few weeks reflecting on the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. See more of our coverage here.

Much of the uneasiness during COVID-19 was about keeping yourself safe. So, imagine if you were enrolled in a nursing or respiratory program during the pandemic. Would you stick with it? And if so, what would be your motivating factors?

Liberty Township resident Naomi Chi had been going to school for pre-law, but decided to switch to nursing, in part because her mother was a nurse.

“One day, I’m just like, huh, I love to talk, I love people and I love helping people,” she recalls.

So, even during the pandemic, when the COVID risk was high for health care workers, Chi decided to pursue an RN degree at Cincinnati State. She had already spent some time working as an LPN.

Beth Cornelius taught school for 15 years before getting her LPN degree and had been working as a home health care nurse when the pandemic hit. She was having trouble getting work during COVID because a lot of the home health care agencies shut down. Cornelius is also pursuing an LPN to RN degree at Cincinnati State.

Vaccine mandate deterred some

Cornelius and other nurses are desperately needed with big shortages happening around the country.

“When the pandemic hit, we still had high enrollment, what impacted students coming into nursing or remaining in nursing was the mandate on the vaccine," Cincinnati State Nursing Chair Janice Lockett says. "So those choosing not to have the vaccine or to be vaccinated were the ones who decided not to continue with their education.”

However, Lockett says those numbers were low, about 5%.

Nursing shortages at area hospitals hit 11% last year, the highest since 2005 and double the normal vacancy rate, according to the The Health Collaborative. Plans are in the works to offer a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Cincinnati State.

'Intriguing' options

The number of respiratory therapists started declining more than a decade ago as baby boomers retired. Cincinnati State and UC Clermont Respiratory Program Chair Mike Chaney says the pandemic only exacerbated it.

(from left) Cincinnati State and UC Clermont Respiratory Program Chair Mike Chaney, students Megan Riley and Nazret Michael.
Ann Thompson
(from left) Cincinnati State and UC Clermont Respiratory Program Chair Mike Chaney, students Megan Riley and Nazret Michael.

In the spring of 2020, Chaney had a big challenge. As program chair for future Cincinnati State and UC Clermont respiratory therapists, he had to make sure his second year students graduated on time so they could fill immediate vacancies in hospitals. He also had to get first-year students experience because hospitals weren't allowing students during the beginning of the pandemic.

“We did some creative things here on campus,” he says. “We pulled them out of clinics and did some case studies and things like that; simulated as much as we could; un-paused their clinicals four months later and we just loaded them up.”

Nazret Michael was working at a Cincinnati Children’s Hospital lab when she decided to go back to school and become a respiratory therapist. “I don’t have any family or friends or anyone that I knew that was in respiratory therapy, so when my job advertised it and gave us informational sessions, I was just intrigued.”

She already has a job lined up as a respiratory therapist at Children’s when she graduates in May.

'If not us, who?'

Are any of them worried about the next infectious disease?

"There's always some new disease that can be contagious and we don't know anything about it," student Megan Riley says.

Riley and others are committed. Says Chi, “We make this pledge to care for people and to do no harm and put our best foot forward and if not us, then who else would do it?”

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.