Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan to reinforce the ranks of health care workers fighting COVID-19 with retired doctors and nurses will formally begin on Monday, when the state offers a streamlined process to reinstate their licenses.
The big question facing the governor is will his “call to action” be successful, especially as infections climb past 1,000 in Illinois?
Ngozi Ezike, the director of the Illinois Department of Health, announced Sunday there were 296 new confirmed cases of coronavirus and three new deaths, bringing the state’s total count to 1,049 cases and nine deaths. The new cases also include an infant under the age of 1.
Pritzker over the weekend appealed to recently retired physicians, nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and respiratory care therapists, saying that “we’re in the middle of a battle, and we need reinforcements.”
“Illinois physicians are ready and willing to engage in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Paul Pedersen, president of the Illinois State Medical Society.
But older retirees, who face higher health risks associated with COVID-19 because of their age, may be reluctant to step forward.
Demetra Sote, a retired pediatrician who still does medical volunteer work, said she is weighing the governor’s plea against concerns for her own health.
Were it not for her age and a lung condition that makes her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, Sote said she would absolutely volunteer to be on the front line if it. So she’s looking for other opportunities to help that would keep her away from coronavirus patients.
“I would not necessarily have to go into the hospital,” she said.
Pritzker on Sunday said his effort to beef up the state’s number of health care workers is not solely directed toward older retirees. He said former health professionals who switched careers or left the profession to take care of family members are also eligible.
“We wouldn’t want anybody who deems themselves at risk, or falls into a high-risk category, to come into the health care profession and be exposed to COVID-19,” the governor said.
There are also opportunities for retirees in high-risk categories to help without being near coronavirus patients, Pritzker said, adding that they could instead help patients who suffered other conditions that need medical attention such as a heart attack.
Even if the governor’s plan is successful, it could add stress to another fraught situation: a shortage in critical hospital supplies, such as masks and gloves. The shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPEs, could jeopardize efforts to slow the spread of the virus and create health risks for doctors, nurses and other medical first responders.
“Many nurses are reporting to us that hospitals have shortages,” said Chris Martin, a spokesperson for the Illinois Nurses Association. “Adding new nurses to that will tax a system that is not properly equipped to keep current nurses safe.”
Pritzker said he has a “room full of people” making calls to manufacturers and businesses to secure enough supplies for the state as the world struggles with the pandemic. But he acknowledged the challenges that loom.
“We’re competing with other countries,” Pritzker said in a Sunday interview on CNN. “It’s a wild west, I’d say, out there.”
The governor said Illinois alone needs a million protective masks and hundreds of thousands of gowns.
Shannon Heffernan contributed to this report.
Hunter Clauss is a digital editor for WBEZ. You can follow him at @whuntah.