NEW BRUNSWICK — Some of the healthcare heroes in New Jersey's fight against COVID-19 had no idea they'd get involved so early on in their quest to one day join the front lines.

As the omicron variant surged in late 2021, and healthcare facilities had their backs against the wall with patient volume and labor struggles, hundreds of undergraduate nursing students at Rutgers University — some as young as sophomores, with zero clinical experience — jumped at the chance to relieve stress on hospital staff and improve patient care.

They did so by joining the ranks of the newly formed Student Nurse Reserve Corps, the brainchild of Susan Salmond, executive vice dean at the Rutgers School of Nursing. She thought of the idea after hearing concerns from the New Jersey Department of Health.

"We put out an email to the students with a flyer ... and literally within an hour there were 38 volunteers," Salmond told New Jersey 101.5.

Eventually, 90 students ended up getting a shot, placed at hospitals throughout New Jersey. Those with no experience were asked to perform tasks that require little training — answering phones and spending time with patients who needed observation, for example — to free up professional nursing staff to focus more on patient care. Students with some clinical experience were able to assist with the care of patients.

"Caring for patients when they are sick and without their families can be tough, especially during a pandemic, but it is also extremely rewarding to provide comfort for these patients and be their advocate," said Anne Vrubliauskas, a sophomore who joined the ranks at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick as a reservist.

According to Salmond, many of the students who answered the call, including Vrubliauskas, continue to have a role at the hospitals where they were placed, on a part-time or per diem basis, rather than as a volunteer.

"Although the number of COVID patients has certainly gone down, there really is a shortage of nursing personnel and other healthcare personnel in our healthcare facilities today," Salmond said.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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