The signals are going up in the sky, so to speak, for retired nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, and other healthcare workers to join the fight against the coronavirus. And despite the very real danger, many are answering that call.
The number of active healthcare providers is under increasing pressure, due in part to quarantine and illness. Nurses and doctors treating coronavirus patients face an increased risk of becoming infected, and in some places in the world healthcare workers account for over 10% of all confirmed cases. Add to our shrinking number of healthcare workers an increasing number of seriously ill coronavirus patients, and we have a recipe for an overwhelmed healthcare system that is going to need all the help it can get. Those retired nurses and doctors answering the call are thinking not only of the future sick who will need treatment, but also believe that their colleagues will soon have too many people to care for.
The problem for healthcare workers coming out of retirement is their more advanced age. Older adults who become infected with the coronavirus are at higher risk for a severe illness, the kind requiring one of those ventilators that are in short supply.
We are not surprised that tens of thousands of retired healthcare workers have answered the call. The career they chose and lived always revolved around coming to the aid of those in need. As we witness the same impulse moving them to step up in this crisis, we are thankful for them as perhaps we have never been before.
However, we should remember that we can’t expect anyone, healthcare workers included, to put their own health and the health of their loved ones in serious jeopardy.
We can ask them; we can shine that signal into the sky, but what we are asking goes beyond what we have a right to expect.
It is an important job for those sending this call to be thinking of ways that our brave, retired doctors and nurses can contribute their much-needed skills without throwing themselves into the most dangerous part of the battle. Just as they work to keep us safe, we need to find ways to keep them safe. Telehealth and telephone triage is one idea. As hospitals and clinics take on more patients, there will be an increasingly important role for triaging those who can stay at home and taking care of them there.