States Get Creative To Find & Deploy More Health Workers in COVID-19 Fight

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Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

When Dr. Judy Salerno, who is in her 60s, got word that the New York State health department was looking for retired physicians to volunteer in the coronavirus crisis, she didn't hesitate.

"As I look to what's ahead for New York City, where I live, I'm thinking that if I can use my skills in some way that I will be helpful, I will step up," she says.

Salerno says she doesn't think of herself as a retiree — she'spresident of The New York Academy of Medicine, which does public health advocacy. But she is essentially retired from clinical practice.

Because of her age, Salerno is among those at higher risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19. "But I feel that I'm healthy," she says. "I'm working full time, I have no other risk factors, so I do need to be there if needed — it's important for me."

Public health experts say the United States is in for a shortage of health care workers in many places soon, as cases of COVID-19 escalate. First, the ranks of front-line health workers will be stretched thin, as hospitals fill. And if health care workers have to scramble to care for sick patients without enough protective gear, they will get infected with the virus and fall ill, too.

"The reality is that we're facing the inevitable shortage of health care providers," says Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. "The people that are coming into close contact — and therefore in greatest danger — are the doctors and nurses and people directly examining patients who possibly have coronavirus."

To address the coming shortage, states from Hawaii to New Hampshire are loosening their licensing rules to give those with clinical skill the ability to pitch in, such as allowing out-of-state physicians to practice right away, asking retired physicians to volunteer, and more. Most states are making these kinds of regulatory changes, according to a tracker maintained by the Federation of State Medical Boards.

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