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Coronavirus Creates Hardships For Hershey Medical Center Students

Penn State is seen as an attractive landing spot for prospective nursing students all around the country. A large part of this recruitment process is due to the opportunity to spend a year at Hershey Medical Center, where they can learn from some of the best medical professionals in live clinical settings.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, things have looked much different at Hershey.

The first warning sign that it would be a truly unique semester began before students’ year-long journey at Hershey Medical Center even started. Like the rest of Penn State, those who planned on taking classes at the medical center were subject to a 10-day self-quarantine.

Claire Quillen, a junior nursing student from Roseville, California, made her trek across the country in August. She spent four nights in a hotel before being allowed to move in while she waited for her coronavirus test to come back negative.

While it was a tough transition period for many, the worst was yet to come.

On September 3, just one week into the school year, the medical center announced that its nursing students would undergo an additional 14-day quarantine due to a coronavirus outbreak. Because the population of students is so small at Hershey, just three confirmed positive cases warranted an official outbreak.

The quarantine period wasn’t a shock to the students, although it didn’t make the transition to their exciting year any easier.

“Going into the semester, we didn’t know we would be facing these restrictions. We were all excited for this awesome experience,” Quillen said.

After the two-week mandatory quarantine, the students were told they had a choice: head back home and take virtual classes — a tough undertaking considering that in-person clinicals are vital to the Hershey experience — or stay. If they chose the latter, students would be subject to strict rules. They wouldn’t be able to go into other apartments, some parts of the hospital were closed off, and they couldn’t stray more than 30 miles from the hospital.

“They kinda made us choose between our college life and our clinical life,” junior Tyler Guarino said. “The experiences at Hershey had the potential of being so good that I decided to stay to the end.”

Both Quillen and fellow junior Gillian Villano noted that the toughest part of the quarantine rules was staying within the 30-mile radius. However, the opportunities offered at Hershey were too great to pass up.

“It was hard to justify moving across the country and paying all this money to go to a really good school,” Quillen said. “My main reason for choosing Penn State was the nursing program and I was so excited to have those clinical experiences at Hershey. It felt really hard for me to not get those experiences that I was wanting to have since I was a senior in high school.

“I told myself, ‘You’re gonna stay, you’re gonna stick it out for as long as you can.'”

According to US News & World Report, Hershey Medical Center ranks as the fourthbest hospital in the state for orthopedic care. The yearlong program that Penn State students undergo, either during their junior or senior year, includes two clinicals per week, as well as in-class lectures.

“Everybody was skeptical about staying because they made us make that decision so early on,” Guarino said. “I’m glad I stayed. My grandma was a nurse, and I’ve seen stuff here that she’s never seen in her whole life.”

While the social restrictions were much harsher than at University Park, the students felt that they were necessary considering their unique circumstances.

“You can’t risk sending students who have Covid into the patient care environment. That’s so unsafe and unprofessional on so many levels,” Quillen said.

Villano noted that the administration has been very understanding at the hospital.

“The professors were very accommodating and helpful,” Villano said. “They did their best to provide the emotional support we needed. My clinical instructor would rework things to make it whatever was best for us.”

While many students view the restrictive measures as necessary, it hasn’t come without hardship. In any other year, the students in Hershey would be able to visit home or State College on weekends.

“I think they handled it really safe, which was smart. I get it, we are going to a hospital with immunocompromised patients every day,” Guarino said. “It just sucked on our part. Normally, we would be able to have normal lives, but they made us either pick between having really restrictive lives and do clinical or not do clinical at all.”

Quillen agreed, noting mental health became a factor, too.

“I hadn’t seen any of my Penn State friends [since March due to nationwide quarantining] and that was really hard,” Quillen said. “It really takes a toll on your mental health, I don’t know anyone who didn’t feel really isolated.”

Quillen and Villano both decided to double up on their clinicals throughout the first part of the fall semester. They have completed their required amount for the fall, and are both going virtual for the remainder of the semester.

“It’s a hard choice, but it was so isolating and hard on my mental health to be that far away from everyone,” Quillen said. “I’m proud of myself for getting through that much in the first few months.”

Quillen decided to go virtual for the rest of the year, but Villano plans to rejoin Guarino and the rest of her classmates in the spring.

Recently, the medical center has been gathering the resources to administer more testing for their students. Starting last week, the hospital has begun weekly testing, and the students are confident they will be able to continue their consistent testing throughout the spring semester.

Additionally, those who come back to Hershey in January must undergo another 10-day quarantine. The students remain hopeful that these extra measures will lead to a less restrictive spring semester.

“I think that, in the end, they handled [the situation] really well,” Guarino said. “The fact that they have let us come back, with these precautions even, it was awesome that we could still do it.”

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About the Author

Otis Lyons

Otis is a sophomore majoring in print journalism and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He lives just north of San Francisco, and is a diehard San Jose Earthquakes fan. Feel free to send over your soccer hot takes to his twitter @otisnlyons1 and instagram @otislyons

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