Maryland health care workers, from those still in training to those who thought their careers were over, are volunteering to help staff the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Larry Hogan has pushed for 6,000 new hospital beds to be created in Maryland in response to a potential surge of cases from the disease caused by the coronavirus. Those beds would need to be staffed by thousands of health care providers.
“In addition to ramping up our hospitals’ physical capability and adding bed space…, we’re also working to increase the number of health care professionals,” Hogan said Friday. “This spirit of service is Maryland at its best, but we still need more help.”
Medical Reserve Corps
One way the state hopes to supplement current staffing is through the Maryland Responds Medical Reserve Corps. This group is made up of volunteers who sign up to help in times of need. It is mostly composed of health care providers.
More than 5,400 people had signed up for the reserve corps as of Friday, Hogan said.
He has also issued executive orders that allow out-of-state physicians and physicians with expired licenses to serve. Another order allows trained emergency responders to serve in clinics and field hospitals.
The reserve corps could be particularly appealing for providers in private practices that have canceled elective procedures or have seen a smaller caseload as people stay home.
Maryland has been using professional associations to advertise for the corps.
Pediatricians, dermatologists, ophthalmologists and plastic surgeons are among the physicians who may now be available to help, said Gene Ransom, executive director of MedChi, the Maryland Medical Society. “They are now totally free, and they are highly trained,” he said.
Ransom also cautioned that physicians might want to evaluate their own risks in volunteering. Many doctors may have signed up for the program to help out in situations like hurricanes, earthquakes or other mass casualty events. But older doctors and those with underlying health conditions could put themselves at risk in this crisis by treating patients.
“One of the issues that we are running into is that there are a lot of physicians who are just older,” Ransom said.
Beverly Lang, executive director of the Nurse Practitioner Association of Maryland, is also a member of the reserve corps. She has seen just one call for aid so far, but she has been letting nurse practitioners know about the corps so they can sign up.
She has sent it out in her weekly email blast to members and advertised the corps on the association’s members-only Facebook page.
While many corps members may not have been needed yet, the state is preparing for a surge. Models, while not a perfect forecast of the pandemic, indicate that Maryland could see its peak of hospitalizations over the next couple of weeks.
While established and retired providers have been called to serve, the state’s thousands of health professional students could also reinforce the health care workforce. The University System of Maryland graduates 4,000 health professional students a year, Chancellor Jay A. Perman told the system’s Board of Regents Monday.
Students have been permitted to volunteer, and universities — including Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore — are pursuing ways to let students weeks away from finishing their degrees graduate early, he said.
“The system’s current health professions students are also permitted to volunteer through the state’s medical reserve corps and become part of Maryland’s emergency response efforts,” Perman said. “I thank those who have chosen to volunteer and put their knowledge and skills to work for Marylanders.”
Since last Thursday, nursing students have been able to sign up for clinical externships through the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medicine Services Systems. It allows them to enter a pool of potential staffers for hospitals to hire. It also classifies their level of experience.
“The students are people who are anxious to be of assistance, have acquired some valuable skills and knowledge, they’re just not where they will eventually be,” said Dr. Theodore Delbridge, MIEMSS’s executive director.
MIEMSS will also add respiratory therapy students to its classification portal, he said, and may add pharmacy and clinical social work students, too.
All students who participate have to have at least some level of clinical experience.
Delbridge was happy with how quickly the state’s schools and MIEMSS were able to put together a system that allows students’ qualifications to be verified.
“I was amazed at how quickly they came together when asked to contribute,” he said. “And subsequently, their students are exactly the same way.”