Kaitlyn Hevner expects to complete a 15-month accelerated nursing program at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville in December. For her clinical training this fall, she's working 12-hour shifts on weekends with medical-surgical patients at a hospital.
But Hevner and nursing students like her who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are in an increasingly precarious position. Their stance may put their required clinical training and, eventually, their nursing careers at risk.
In early September, the Biden administration announced that workers at health care facilities, including hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers, would be required to receive COVID vaccines. Although details of the federal rule won't be released until October, some experts predict that student nurses doing clinical training at such sites will have to be vaccinated, too.
Groups representing the nursing profession say "students should be vaccinated when clinical facilities require it" to complete their clinical training. In a policy brief released Monday, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and eight other nurse organizations suggested that students who refuse to be vaccinated and who don't qualify for an exception because of their religious beliefs or medical issues may be disenrolled from their nursing program or be unable to graduate because they cannot fulfill the clinical requirements.
"We can't have students in the workplace that can expose patients to a serious illness," said Maryann Alexander, chief officer for nursing regulation at the national council. "Students can refuse the vaccine, but those who are not exempt maybe should be told that this is not the time to be in a nursing program."
"You're going to go into practice and you're going to be very limited in your jobs if you're not going to get that vaccine," Alexander said.
Hevner, 35, set to finish her clinical training in early October, said she doesn't feel it's acceptable to benefit from a vaccine that was developed using fetal cells obtained through abortion, which she opposes. (Development of the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine involved a cell line from an abortion; the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines were not developed with fetal cell lines, but some testing of the vaccines reportedly involved fetal cells, researchers say. Many religious leaders, however, support vaccination against COVID.)
With vaccines for nursing students still optional in many health care settings, nursing educators are scrambling to place unvaccinated students in health care facilities that will accept them.
Down the coast from Jacksonville in Fort Pierce, Florida, 329 students are in the two-year associate degree nursing program at Indian River State College, said Roseann Maresca, an assistant professor who teaches third-semester students and coordinates their clinical training. Only 150 of them are vaccinated against COVID, she said.
Not all of the eight medical facilities that have contracts with the school require student nurses to be vaccinated.
"It's been a nightmare trying to move students around this semester" to match them with facilities depending on their vaccination status, Maresca said.
Commonly, health care facilities have long required employees to be vaccinated against various illnesses such as influenza and hepatitis B. The pandemic has added new urgency to these requirements. According to a September tally by FierceHealthcare, more than 170 health systems mandate COVID vaccines for their workforces.
In May, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made it clear that under federal law employers can mandate COVID vaccinations as long as they allow workers to claim religious and medical exemptions.
Under the Biden administration's COVID plan, roughly 50,000 health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid payments must require workers to be vaccinated. Until the administration releases its draft rule in October, it is unclear how nursing students assigned to health care sites for clinical training will be treated.
But the federal rule published in August that lays out regulations for government hospital payments in 2022 offers clues. It defined health care personnel that should be vaccinated as employees, licensed independent contractors and adult students/trainees and volunteers, said Colin Milligan, director of media relations at the American Hospital Association.
In addition to staff members, the Biden plan says mandates will apply to "individuals providing services under arrangements" at health care sites.
A spokesperson for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services declined to clarify who would be covered by the Biden plan, noting the agency is still writing the rules.
Nonetheless, vaccination mandates threaten to derail the training of a relatively small proportion of nursing students. A recent survey by the National Student Nurses' Association reported that 86% of nursing students and 85% of new nursing graduates who responded to an online survey said they had been or planned to be vaccinated against COVID.
But the results varied widely by state, from 100% in New Hampshire and Vermont on the high end to 63% in Oklahoma, 74% in Kentucky and 76% in Florida on the low end. The survey had 7,501 respondents.
Students who don't want to be vaccinated are asking schools to offer them alternatives to on-site clinical training. They suggest using life-size computer-controlled mannequins or computer-based simulations using avatars, said Marcia Gardner, dean of the nursing school at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York.
Last year, when the pandemic led hospitals to close their doors to students, many nursing programs increased simulated clinical training to give nursing students some sort of clinical experience.
But that's no substitute for working with real patients in a health care setting, educators say. State nursing boards permit simulated clinical study to varying degrees, but none allow such instruction to exceed 50% of clinical training, said Alexander. A multisite study found that nursing students could do up to half their clinical training using simulation with no negative impact on competency.
The policy brief by the council of state nursing boards states that nursing education programs "are not obligated to provide substitute or alternate clinical experiences based on a student's request or vaccine preference."
As more nursing students become vaccinated, the issue will grow less acute. And if the Biden plan requires nursing students to be vaccinated to work in hospitals, the number of holdouts is likely to further shrink.
Hevner, the University of North Florida student, said she's not opposed to vaccines in general and would consider getting a COVID vaccine in the future if she could be assured it wasn't created using aborted fetal cells. She filed paperwork with the college to get a religious exemption from vaccine requirements. It turned out she didn't need one because Orange Park Medical Center, where she is doing her clinical training, doesn't require staffers or nursing students to be vaccinated against COVID "at this time," said Carrie Turansky, director of public relations and communications for the medical center, in Orange Park, Florida.
Although Hevner opposes getting the vaccine, "I take protecting my patients and protecting myself very seriously," she said. She gets tested weekly for COVID and always wears an N95 mask in a clinical setting, among other precautions, she said. "But I would ask: Do we give up our own religious rights and our own self-determination just because we work in a health care setting?"
She hopes the profession can accommodate people like her.
"I'm concerned because we're in such a divisive place," she said. But she is eager to find a middle ground because, she said, "I think I would make a really great nurse."