STORRS, Conn. -- Nurses around the U.S. are getting burned out by the covid-19 crisis and quitting, yet applications to nursing schools are rising, driven by what educators say are young people who see the global emergency as an opportunity and a challenge.
Among them is University of Connecticut sophomore Brianna Monte, a 19-year-old from Mahopac, N.Y., who had been considering majoring in education but decided on nursing after watching nurses care for her 84-year-old grandmother, who was diagnosed last year with covid-19 and had cancer.
"They were switching out their protective gear in between every patient, running like crazy trying to make sure all of their patients were attended to," she said. "I had that moment of clarity that made me want to jump right in to health care and join the workers on the front line."
Nationally, enrollment in bachelor's, master's and doctoral nursing programs increased 5.6% in 2020 from the year before to just over 250,000 students, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
Figures for the current 2021-22 school year won't be available until January, but administrators say they have continued to see a spike in interest.
The University of Michigan nursing school reported getting about 1,800 applications for 150 freshman slots this fall, compared with about 1,200 in 2019.
Marie Nolan, executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore, said it has seen its biggest number of applicants ever, many of them applying even before a vaccine was available, despite her worries that covid-19 would scare off students.
Students at those and other schools have been able to gain valuable hands-on experience during the pandemic, doing covid-19 testing and contact tracing and working at community vaccination clinics.
"We've said to the students, 'This is a career opportunity that you'll never see again,'" Nolan said.
Emma Champlin, a first-year nursing student at Fresno State, said that like many of her classmates, she saw the pandemic as a chance to learn critical-care skills and then apply them. And she is young and her immune system is fine, she said, "so the idea of getting the virus didn't scare me."
"It's just time for us to step in and give it our all and figure out how we can help, because there has to be a new generation and that's got to be us," the 21-year-old said.
The higher enrollment could help ease a nursing shortage that existed even before covid-19. But it has brought its own problems: The increase, combined with the departure of too many experienced nurses whose job is to help train students, has left many nursing programs without the ability to expand.
The rise is happening even as hospital leaders around the U.S. report that thousands of nurses have quit or retired during the outbreak, many of them exhausted and demoralized because of the pressure of caring for the dying, hostility from patients and families, and the frustration in knowing that many deaths were preventable by way of masks and vaccinations.
Eric Kumor saw many of his nursing colleagues from a covid-19 unit in Lansing, Mich., transfer or take other jobs this past spring when the pandemic's third wave began to hit. He followed them out the door in July.
"It was like this mass exodus. Everybody chose their own health and wellness over dealing with another wave," he said.
He said he plans on returning to health care someday, but for now is working at a barbecue joint, where the worst thing that can happen is "burning a brisket."
"I'm not done with nursing yet," he said.
Betty Jo Rocchio, chief nursing officer for Mercy Health, which runs hospitals and clinics in Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, said her system has about 8,500 nurses but is losing about 160 each month.
The departures are also taking their toll on nursing education, which relies on clinical instructors and preceptors, the experienced, hands-on nurses who mentor students on the job.
Nursing faculty is expected to shrink by 25% by 2025 across the country as nurses retire or leave because of burnout or other reasons, said Patricia Hurn, the nursing school dean at Michigan.
Mindy Schiebler, a cardiac nurse from Vancouver, Wash., taught nursing students for three years before quitting in 2016. She said she would love to still be teaching but that it's not workable financially. She said she knows nursing professors who work multiple jobs or dip into their retirement savings.
"How long can you subsidize your own job?" she asked. "Nurses will make double what you make in just a few years out of the gate."
Meanwhile, experts continue to warn people not to let their guard down as daily counts of coronavirus infections ease.
The United States is recording roughly 90,000 new infections a day, down more than 40% since August. Hospitalizations and deaths are falling, too.
The crisis is not over everywhere -- the situation in Alaska is particularly dire -- but nationally, the trend is clear, and hopes are rising that the worst is finally behind us.
Over the past two years, the pandemic has crashed over the country in waves, inundating hospitals and then receding, only to return after Americans let their guard down.
But as winter looms, there are real reasons for optimism. Nearly 70% of adults are fully vaccinated, and many children younger than 12 are likely to be eligible for their shots in a matter of weeks. Federal regulators could soon authorize the first antiviral pill for covid-19.
"We are definitely, without a doubt, hands-down in a better place this year than we were last year," said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy and Research at Boston University.
But the pandemic is not over yet, scientists cautioned. Nearly 2,000 Americans are still dying every day, and another winter surge is plausible. Given how many Americans remain unvaccinated and how much remains unknown, it is too soon to abandon basic precautions, they said.
"We've done this again and again, where we let the foot off the pedal too early," Bhadelia said. "It behooves us to be a bit more cautious as we're trying to get to that finish line."
What comes next is hard to predict, but cases may not necessarily continue their steady decline, scientists warned.
Britain and Israel, which both have higher vaccination rates than the United States, are still struggling with outbreaks.
Most experts said they would not be surprised to see at least a small increase in cases later this fall or this winter as people begin spending more time indoors and traveling for the holidays.
But because the vaccines remain highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death, any coming winter spikes may be less catastrophic than last year's.
"It's not likely that it will be as deadly as the surge we had last winter, unless we get really unlucky with respect to a new variant," said Joshua Salomon, an infectious disease expert and modeler at Stanford University.
The emergence of a new variant remains a wild card, as does the possibility that the protection afforded by vaccination could start to wane more substantially.
Human behavior is another source of uncertainty.
"Predicting an outbreak is not like predicting the weather, because you're dealing with human behavior," said Nicholas Reich, a biostatistician at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "And that's a fundamentally really hard thing to predict: new policies that would come into force, people's reactions to them, new trends on social media, you know -- the list goes on and on."
Information for this article was contributed by Pat Eaton-Robb and John Seewer of The Associated Press; and by Emily Anthes of The New York Times.