Laura Benson retired from nursing in 2018, but this week she reported for work again in New Rochelle, New York, where the first cluster of COVID-19 cases occurred a few short weeks ago.
"Nurses are used to giving of themselves," she said. "If there's not enough people, you just do it."
With more than 39,000 confirmed cases, New York is now the epicenter in the U.S. of the novel coronavirus outbreak, accounting for almost half of the more than 85,500 cases nationwide as of late Thursday evening. Anticipating a severe shortage of medical personnel to treat the influx of sick patients, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials put out a call for retired doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to dust off their scrubs and return to work. By Thursday, 52,000 people had responded.
In New York's Westchester County, which includes New Rochelle and other towns north of New York City, County Executive George Latimer said about 90 retired nurses and a handful of doctors responded after he posted a message on the county's Facebook page about a week ago seeking help.
There's no definite plan for deploying the medical volunteers, Latimer said. They may be needed to replace personnel sidelined by the coronavirus or to help staff the Westchester County Center being repurposed as a temporary hospital.
Benson, 60, is working for the county health department. A nurse practitioner with a specialty in oncology, she spent 20 years at the Albert Einstein Cancer Center in the Bronx. She eventually retired from a job at a medical device company, where she worked with patients who have brain tumors. She also teaches nursing students at a community college.
(Photo courtesy of Laura Benson)
On her first day as a retiree volunteer, Benson phoned patients who had recently been tested for the novel coronavirus to talk them through the guidelines they should follow to protect themselves and others.
If there's a need, she said, she is "absolutely" willing to work directly with patients who have COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
"I think about the person laying in that bed," she said. "I'd want someone to take care of them."
Benson is not particularly worried about the virus, having worked through the AIDS crisis, treating patients before people understood what that disease was. "You follow the guidelines and protect yourself," she explained.
The best role for many retired medical professionals may be to fill in behind the scenes, said experts, freeing up younger colleagues to focus on direct patient care.
One reason for this: age.
"My only concern is that many of these retired folks fall into high-risk groups" more likely to be seriously affected by COVID-19, said Dr. Arthur Fougner, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, a professional group for physicians.
Another concern is whether retirees are up-to-date in their medical knowledge.
"If they're out for more than two to three years, you have to worry about them being current," said Dr. Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, which represents the academic medical community.
In addition, health care providers' state licenses may have lapsed if they've been retired for more than a few years. Renewing them can be time-consuming.
Still, "if someone still has their licensing and is willing to come back, we should grab that," Orlowski said.
Michele Pedicone is one such professional. The respiratory care therapist left her job in Seattle last year to head up clinical education at SUNY Upstate Medical University's respiratory therapy education department in Syracuse, New York. With her classes now mostly happening online and student clinical placements on hold, she has time to step back into clinical care. She contacted two nearby hospitals to see if they could use her services and expects to work three or four days a week.
"I honestly don't know what they're paying me; the money isn't an issue," said Pedicone, 54. "It's the right thing to do."
Respiratory therapists, critical care physicians and nurses trained in operating ventilators that help hospitalized patients breathe are among the specialists expected to be in severely short supply as the coronavirus pandemic worsens in New York and elsewhere, according to an analysis by the Society of Critical Care Medicine.
Expanding the supply of intensive care workers will be key to managing the coronavirus pandemic, said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, at a briefing this week on health care workforce issues sponsored by the Commonwealth Fund.
One option policymakers have discussed is that states could allow, for example, medical professionals who retired in the past five years with licenses in good standing to get an automatic three- or six-month license without having to do a lot of paperwork, Jha said.
In the meantime, health care systems are developing their own strategies. Northwell Health owns and operates 19 hospitals in New York City, Westchester County and Long Island. This week, the health system has more than 700 patients with COVID-19, compared with just 40 patients last week, according to Terry Lynam, a senior vice president at the health system.
Northwell has been planning how to beef up staff since January, said Judy Howard, vice president of talent acquisition at the health system who oversees hiring, except for physician leadership. They developed a list of 200 retired nurses whom they've been contacting to gauge their interest in returning to paid work in some capacity. So far, 28 have signed on, Howard said.
At this time, they're asking retired nurses to work at the health system's call center and share responsibilities for training new nurse employees. Some are working in direct patient care. Another possibility is for retired nurses to staff facilities that Northwell has put in place to care for staff members' children during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Whether someone really wants to work four hours a week or would like to work 10 hours a week, we'll work with them to meet their needs," Howard said.