Government officials across the US are calling on retired health workers to come back to work amid the coronavirus pandemic, expecting the current workforce of health workers to be overwhelmed and many to fall ill themselves.
The call for retired workers and other qualified medical professionals to help frontline staff underscores the desperate measures officials expect will be needed to care for a surge in ill patients, as older workers themselves will be much more susceptible to complications and death from Covid-19.
New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, called on retired doctors to volunteer last week, with 1,000 workers responding in one day. Some states are working to quickly re-certify health professionals’ expired licenses. Governor JB Pritzker of Illinois cut red tape to allow doctors and nurses to renew expired licenses. The US Department of Veterans Affairs called on doctors to rejoin to care for ill former military.
“There’s a sense right now that it’s kind of the calm before the storm,” said Dr Marvin Malek, 67, a primary care doctor in rural Springfield, Vermont. “I’ve done a lot of inpatient care. I could imagine being drafted to go back to the hospital if we have a lot of ventilator patients,” he said. He said he would say yes to such a request.
The US’s private healthcare system means responses to the outbreak have varied from state to state. In New York, which has fast become a global hotspot, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday that projections for needed hospital beds had sharply increased as the number of cases rises more quickly than predicted. Now, state officials expect 140,000 patients will need hospital beds, 30,000 higher than previous projections. New York currently has about 55,000 hospital beds.
“A bed without staff is virtually useless,” said Cuomo. “I will turn this state upside down to get the number of beds we need. But we need the staff for those beds.”
He continued, “We’re calling and contacting all retirees in the healthcare field, we’re calling all professionals in the healthcare fields, whether or not they work in a hospital, they can work at an insurance company, a clinic, whatever, but we want to enlist as many staff as we can.”
Already, 40,000 health professionals have volunteered to act as a “surge health force”. Among them, are 2,400 nurse practitioners, 2,200 doctors have volunteered to help in the crisis. Another 6,000 mental health professionals are providing free therapy.
The problem of keeping hospitals, clinics and nursing homes staffed during the crisis is underscored by the very nature of the disease the world is fighting. In Wuhan, China, the likelihood of infection among medical workers was more than three times as high as the general population.
The coronavirus is highly contagious, and spreads through droplets of mucus and saliva, leaving health workers – many of whom are caring for patients without the appropriate protective equipment – at risk.
Existing staffing shortages are only likely to be exacerbated by the epidemic. About 100 rural hospitals in the US have closed since 2010. Further, of the more than 7,000 areas in the US with existing doctor shortages, 60% are in rural areas.
Already, healthcare workers have begun to get sick. Two emergency room doctors in New Jersey and Washington state were put in critical care last week. A New York nurse who spoke with the Guardian said a colleague was recently admitted to intensive care in her own hospital, ill with Covid-19, and had to be put on a ventilator.
Dr Kelly Cawcutt, the associate director of infection control and critical care at the University of Nebraska medical center, which cared for Covid-19 patients from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, said she expected up to 40% of her workforce could fall ill at any one time.
“We’re bracing for the potential of having up to 30-40% of the healthcare workforce step out of care at a given point of time,” Cawcutt told the Guardian.
A retired emergency department doctor in Illinois said he has been monitoring the situation for months, and wondering when to step in.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how I can contribute since January when this all started,” Dr Scott Altman told local news station WGN. “It was very clear we were going to need to respond quickly and forcefully.”