STUDENT nurses have been the hidden face of Australia's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic for over two years.
Across the country, thousands of third and fourth year nursing students are currently undertaking placements and work experience in increasingly overstretched COVID wards.
At Bendigo Health, a number of Victorian students are working with local health professionals to care for the COVID infected patients.
La Trobe Nursing student Rhommy Martin has been working on the Bendigo Health COVID ward for 18 months.
"At the moment it's pretty full on," she said, "we were a ward that had half COVID patients and half non-COVID, but at the moment we are just full of COVD."
"There are so many patients that need beds."
Ms Martin says the nurses on the COVID wards are working minimum 12 hour shifts in full personal protective equipment (PPE).
"The PPE in particular makes it extremely hard," she said.
"We can't leave once we're up there, and that's usually for twelve hours.
"That's a pretty long time to not be outside."
While the equipment makes the job challenging, student nurses say the hardest aspect of it is the immediate reality from working on the wards.
"You hear about COVID on the news and you see things online," Ms Martin said, "but you really don't understand until you're there with people who are incredibly sick."
VICTORIA recorded another 22,429 new COVID-19 cases and six deaths on Sunday, bringing the state's total active cases to 245,050.
The Greater Bendigo cases continued to grow on the weekend too, with the number now sitting at 1134.
Ms Martin said that learning that people were dying from the illness in her local community was a rude awakening,
"We are definitely seeing deaths on the ward which shocked me," she said.
"I thought surely Bendigo doesn't have that happening, but it's happening right here."
However, mirroring the message from the Victorian government in Monday morning's press conference, Ms Martin says the majority of severely ill patients are unvaccinated.
"Most of the people that are really unwell and end up on the CPAP machines are unvaccinated," she said.
"But we've had a range of patient ages, we've had as young as 18 all the way up to 95."
Staff shortages at the hospital also remain an issue, however due to the amount of student nurses helping out in the COVID wards, the pressure has been alleviated.
"We're probably one of the luckier wards in regards to shortages," Ms Martin said.
"COVID specific wards have dedicated Registered Undergraduate Student Nurses (RUSON) and Health Services Assistants (HSA) staff.
Ms Martin says Bendigo Health is supporting the nurses as much as they can, although there's only so much they can do.
"We always need more nurses and we always need more RAT tests."
According to staff, mandatory RAT testing has dropped from every three days to once a week as a result of the testing shortages.
"PCRs are still available to do if you need them, however they are taking ages to come back."
While starting a career at such an unpredictable time has had its challenges on students, Ms Martin says the experience is invaluable.
"It's been a great learning experience," she said. "All the nurses up there are super knowledgeable so I am taking it all in.
"It's a bit of a daunting time to start my career, sometimes I think 'Oh god is this really what I want to do?', but I'm just hoping this will pass and things will get better.
"Everyone is just doing the best they can with what they've got."
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