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The Bleak Choice Facing Retired Doctors and Nurses: Risk Their Lives Fighting Coronavirus or Sit Out of the Crisis

“I mean, I’m gonna get it. Am I going to die?”

by Alex Lubben
Mar 26 2020, 8:14pm

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Retired doctors and nurses have a hard choice to make: Risk their lives to come back to work and treat coronavirus patients, or sit on the sidelines of a global pandemic.

“They're asking us to sacrifice our lives, essentially, without proper equipment, without any support,” said Anne, a recently retired 60-year-old nurse in San José, California, who’s thinking about coming back to work. “And of course because we are who we are, most of us will probably go.”

Across the U.S., healthcare workers are being asked to come out of retirement to help treat the overwhelming influx of new coronavirus patients at hospitals. It’s not an easy decision: In many cases, healthcare workers don’t have the supplies they need to protect themselves, like gloves and masks, and if they contract the virus, treating them could overwhelm a system already stretched thin.

Nurses and doctors told VICE News they’re worried about their health and putting their families at risk — but that sitting out of the crisis feels like a cop-out.

“I mean, I’m gonna get it. Am I going to die? Probably not,” Anne said. “I guess it’s maybe the unknown that makes me anxious.”

The healthcare workforce has been getting older over the course of the last decade: Almost a third of American nurses and doctors are 60 or older, and their age puts them at greater risk of hospitalization and even death if they contract the coronavirus. CDC data suggests that somewhere between 31% and 59% of COVID-19 patients over 65 require hospitalization; up to 11% of patients in that age bracket die from the virus.

“Why in God’s name would you call them back to go to work in this biggest, most chaotic pandemic that we’ve had in decades?”

Concerned they don’t have enough medical staff to treat patients during the pandemic, governments in many states are pleading for healthcare workers to come out of retirement. In New York, the epicenter of the outbreak with nearly 40,000 cases, Gov. Andrew Cuomo put out a call last week. The governors of Colorado and Illinois have issued similar requests, as did the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“You are going to have staff that are getting sick and that need to be replaced,” Cuomo said Monday. “We are going to the entire retired community — healthcare professionals who are licensed, registered — and we’re saying we want you to enlist to help.”

On Wednesday, Cuomo said that 40,000 healthcare workers had already volunteered, though not all were retirees.

But older healthcare workers may not need to put their lives on the line to help during the crisis. They can safely perform certain tasks, like telemedicine and reading X-rays, without having to interact with patients directly, although states and agencies haven’t clarified how they plan to use the nurses and doctors. Cuomo’s office referred VICE News to the governor’s press briefings when asked for details.

“We need as many doctors as possible to read CT and X-rays because that’s where some of the bottlenecks are in decision-making,” said Dr. Calvin D. Sun, a 33-year-old physician specializing in emergency medicine in New York City. He’s been picking up shifts in ERs across New York City for doctors who can’t make it to work — some because they had to quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus.

In a suburb of New York City, near the cluster of cases in New Rochelle, Fred Daum, 78, has volunteered to help triage patients over the phone and advise them on whether to go to the hospital or not. He recently retired as the head of pediatric gastroenterology at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island but has continued to see patients via telemedicine since then.

“We're doing this strictly by telemedicine,” Daum said. “To be honest with you, I would not go to a hospital to volunteer.”

Julie Schwind, a 41-year-old nursing professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, suggested that older physicians and nurses could also treat non-COVID-19 patients. She’s been teaching in a clinical setting but plans to treat patients during the coronavirus outbreak if she’s needed.

“In a perfect situation, we would say absolutely not, we don't want these people here,” she said of older, more at-risk healthcare workers. “But if our hospitals get overwhelmed, people are going to die of everything.”

But there’s concern among healthcare workers that putting older workers on the front line of the pandemic might backfire.

“Here you have the government mandating 65 and above citizens to stay home because they want to make sure that they don’t fall under the risk of contracting this disease,” said Michelle Gutierrez Vo, a 46-year-old nurse in Fremont, California. “So why in God’s name would you call them back to go to work in this biggest, most chaotic pandemic that we’ve had in decades?”

Still, it’ll be hard to keep older healthcare workers from showing up to work. They know they’re needed, and they don’t want to be sitting around at home during a crisis.

“Some days I think, 'Oh, I just need to do this.' Then other days I think, 'Well, I won’t be able to see my mom,” Anne said. (She’s only been dropping meals off at her doorstep.) Anne also hasn’t discussed the matter with her husband and kids yet, but she felt sure they wouldn’t want her to go.

“They know I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do,” she said.

Cover: A nurse, wearing rubber, waits gloves for the city's coronavirus testing site to open next to Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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