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Some Medical Volunteers Get Slowed Down in Race to Help City

Healthcare volunteers have been staying at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown.
Many healthcare volunteers from out of town have been staying at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown, April 8, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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A young nurse from Memphis, who came to New York to help fill the city’s dire need for medical personnel amid the pandemic, couldn’t tell whether she was doing more harm than good.

The 30-year-old Tennessean, who spoke to THE CITY on condition that her name be withheld, arrived March 20 after being enlisted by a recruiting firm for an “emergency response job.” She said company officials and job postings indicated she’d be swabbing incoming patients to test them for coronavirus.

Instead, over a nine-day stretch working at Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica — one of the busiest public hospitals for patients with COVID-19 — the nurse says she was thrust into a chaotic scene of dying patients and frazzled staffers.

She said she was asked to provide care beyond her training as a registered nurse.

“I feel like I was more assisting with the confusion than actually helping the patients themselves,” said the nurse, who flew back to the Volunteer State on March 29. “I didn’t feel as though I was actually being beneficial out there. So I took a step back.”

A Huge Need

In recent weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have sounded a nationwide call for medical workers to help New York deal with its biggest health crisis in a century.

The disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, has put 11,000 people across the five boroughs in the hospital currently and is linked to more than 4,200 deaths.

On April 1, de Blasio raised the idea of a national draft to get doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists — to operate ventilators — onto the front lines of the battle against coronavirus, which has pummeled New York City as it spreads.

Days later, the mayor announced the need for 45,000 medical personnel to help the city weather the growing health care storm throughout April and into May.

City and state officials have been trying to meet those staffing needs through a variety of means: a state portal; a city volunteers website; emergency mobile phone alerts; pleas for military intervention; and paid recruiting companies.

Tens of thousands of people from all over the country have signed up to pitch in — including more than 85,000 on the state’s site alone, officials said.

As of Tuesday, more than 77,000 people who filled out the state questionnaire had been vetted, the governor’s office said.

Roughly 16 hospitals and hospital systems throughout New York City, Long Island and Westchester were in the process of doing a second round of vetting and placing more than 7,000 medical volunteers at facilities Monday night, said Rich Azzopardi, one of the governor’s senior aides.

Individual hospitals are in charge of making compensation arrangements for additional staffing, but the state is arranging free transportation, via JetBlue, Delta and Amtrak, for medical personnel, as well as free housing in several hotels across the city, Azzopardi said.

All are stepping up to a heroic task. Some are volunteers with little to no medical training, others are retired doctors and nurses who want to lend their experience in this historic moment, and a good number are traveling medical personnel for-hire.

Also included among all those categories: some who have experienced frustrations with New York’s early recruitment and placement efforts.

Trouble Getting In

For some would-be-volunteers, the biggest obstacle is simply getting through the door.

One local retired doctor who requested anonymity told THE CITY she signed up for the NYC Medical Reserve Corps late last month — but wasn’t assigned a volunteer shift for weeks, despite several direct attempts to offer her services.

When an emergency text-alert seeking medical workers was sent to local phones last Friday, the doctor became frustrated anew.

“For two weeks, I’ve been trying to do this,” she said. “That’s just not right.”

She said the registration process proved cumbersome, confusing and took hours — without any confirmation she had successfully signed up. A city rep later assured her that her information had been submitted, but she continued to receive requests from the MRC to fill out the form again.

Elmhurst Hospital.
Healthcare workers walk past people waiting to get tested for COVID at Elmhurst Hospital, April 6, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On Tuesday evening, the MRC emailed her saying she’d been assigned to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. She’s since picked up additional overnight shifts at another hospital that is affiliated with her research work.

“I’ll still go if they need me and I’m free,” she said, adding she could already have been helping for the past two weeks.

Alisa Baer, 40, a pediatrician who doesn’t currently practice, signed up with the MRC in mid-March and was slated to start her first shift at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens on April 2.

But Baer had seen reports of shortages of personal protective equipment at the overwhelmed public hospital, so she sought assurances that she’d have insurance coverage if she were to contract COVID-19 while working.

She hasn’t heard back.

While Baer said she was “willing to risk her health and safety” to volunteer, the possibility of steep health care costs is delaying her start date.

“In times of crisis, you just do whatever is needed,” said Baer, of Manhattan. “It’s the principle of it. You shouldn’t be penalized for volunteering.”

‘Just Show Up’

Some volunteers aren’t waiting to get the green light from officials before heading to New York.

Jorge Sardinas, a 25-year-old emergency medical technician in Port St. Lucie, Fla., signed up to volunteer on New York State’s portal a few days ago when his own work shifts started to dry up. He said his friends in New York City urged him not to wait to hear back.

“That’s what everybody’s telling me: Just go there and show up,” he told THE CITY. “I mean, people are dying — [officials are] not going to be too worried about answering a phone.”

His attitude is: “Wherever I’m needed, whether it’s assisting patients or it’s cleaning the floor or bringing supplies or whatever — whatever. I just want to be there and be an extra hand.”

Fred Schultz, a 72-year-old respiratory therapist from Cape Coral, Fla., figured he had plenty of time on his hands after his job shut down temporarily.

So he reached out to a recruiting firm, and is expecting to be deployed in a week or two to New York — although he could get assigned to another hotspot.

“I don’t like to sit around, and I like to take care of people,” said Schultz, who described himself as a triathlete.

“I just know that we all have a mission in life,” he added. “This happens to be my mission — to take care of people.”

Does Not Compute

In The Bronx, ophthalmologist Chad Haller said he’s signed up to volunteer on three sites — including the hospital his private practice is associated with, Mt. Sinai.

He said he had a fairly easy time registering on the state’s website almost two weeks ago, but was stymied by the city’s two-step signup process.

Samaritan’s Purse constructed hospital tents in Central Park across from Mount Sinai Hospital during the coronavirus outbreak.
Hospital tents in Central Park across from Mount Sinai Hospital, April 6, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“In the end, I did one of the two steps. But the second step I wasn’t able to complete,” said Haller, 45. “The frustrating thing is I’m willing to volunteer. I’m hearing from the mayor we might need to draft doctors, and I’m trying to volunteer, but it’s not easy.”

His wife, Jessica Haller, a tech entrepreneur who’s running for a Bronx City Council seat, said she witnessed her husband’s registration headaches and was stunned by the hurdles.

“I’m watching this happen and I’m like, this is insane,” she said. “The end game is to get the damn thing fixed.”

Vetting Process Is Key

Asked about reports of logistical snafus, de Blasio told NY1’s Errol Louis on Monday that he’d look into it.

“We’ve gotten a lot of people who’ve come forward to volunteer. This is the first time I’ve actually heard someone say that they’re having a problem with that system, but I want to make sure it’s tight because we need it to work,” he said.

The efforts to recruit paid staff are being managed by the Office of Emergency Management and the city Health and Hospitals Corporation.

Officials at HHC refused to divulge which recruiting firms they were employing, citing a “need to remain competitive in a very tight market.”

They said at least 1,000 nurses and hundreds of doctors have been hired for temporary positions in recent weeks.

“Hundreds have answered our call to become heroes at the front line to assist those afflicted with Covid-19,” said HHC’s Christopher Miller.

Meanwhile, those who fill out the state’s survey undergo an internal vetting process in which 175 state officials check for licensing requirements and “disciplinary problems,” said Jim Malatras, the president of SUNY Empire State College and a top advisor to the governor.

Once the state’s vetting is completed, the volunteers’ information — such as their specialties or certifications — gets uploaded onto a state portal that went live last Thursday and can be accessed by hospitals looking for staffing with particular specialties.

Hospital officials then usually do their own screening, Malatras said.

‘Trying Times for All’

Many of the recruited medical workers are staying at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown.

Amber Wolf, a 48-year-old registered nurse from Alabama, boarded a plane on March 26 to help out at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Hospital. She stayed at the New Yorker, but found the living space — with no microwave, refrigerator or even a coffee pot — ill-equipped for nurses’ hours.

“By the time we got back at, you know, 8:45, 9 o’clock at night, the Target a quarter-mile away was already closed,” she said. “CVS was closed, so we couldn’t even get our basic essentials.”

Hotel officials said they understood Wolf’s frustrations, and noted staff members were doing their best to accommodate an influx of workers.

“The city has locked down pretty much everything,” said Anthony Amendola, director of sales and marketing at The New Yorker Hotel, where about 800 medical workers are currently staying. “It is difficult not only for the nurses, but for the general public — the residents of New York City — to get food.”

“It is trying times in New York for all of us,” he added.

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