As the country faces a surge in those infected with the covid-19 virus, health care workers are increasingly at risk of getting sick and even dying. There are news reports that soon the country could run out of health care workers who are essential in fighting the sprawling pandemic.

The concern for the health and safety of front line health care workers is widespread. Indeed, it has been reported that some doctors and nurses consider getting infected with the corona virus an inevitability in view of gear shortages, lax protocols, and a high level of stress in their workplaces — with the worst still to come. The implications of such infections and such a shortage would be devastating, both to overworked personnel and to the patients for whom receiving medical attention could be a life-or-death matter.

“As patient demand continues to ramp up nationwide and more health care workers are unable to show up for work, either because they contract the virus or because they have to self-quarantine, doctor shortages are a real possibility” said Cynthia Cox, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Something extraordinary needs to be done.

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One possible solution to this alarming problem would be to bring in more doctors and nurses from abroad and to make it easier for them to come.

According to Shari Dingle Costantini, president of the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment, her organization has as many as 12,000 nurses abroad who could fill these jobs, if only they could enter the U.S. Even though they have a request for 5000 nurses in New York, evidently the foreign nurses are unable to immigrate here. “We have the nurses with all the credentials and ready to come into the country but they can’t because there are no visas,” she said.

According to a report in The Japan Times, as the corona virus pandemic threatens to strain nursing staffs at hospitals across the United States, Melanie N. Beckham knows where to find reinforcements. But first, the Trump administration needs to give its approval.

Melanie N. Beckham, president of Vintage Health Resources in Germantown, Tennessee, that specializes in helping hospitals throughout the Southeast hire nurses from the Philippines, a country with a large population of English speakers and a long history of sending health care workers abroad has indicated that of the several hundred Philippine recruits now in Vintage’s application process, more than 100 nurses have passed the licensing and language exams. They have completed background checks and are ready to head to the U.S. Yet they are stuck because they can’t get their visas processed.THE JAPAN TIMESU.S. immigration rules bar thousands of foreign nurses | The Japan Times

The U.S. health care system already relies heavily on immigrants. They make up 17 percent of all health care workers and more than one in four doctors. At a time when corona virus is pushing America to the limit of its resources, these health care workers will be all the more critical.

In response to the critical need for more help, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs is trying to speed up the inflow of foreign medical workers. It has posted an advisory on its website asking medical personnel to check the website of their nearest embassy or consulate for procedures to request a visa appointment. While the Department of State has suspended routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates on March 20 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department has indicated that embassies and consulates will continue to provide emergency and mission-critical visa services “as resources allow.”

Expediting the services indicated in the Bureau’s advisory, such as helping non-immigrant and immigrant medical professional applicants with approved visas or certificates of eligibility under visitor exchange programs and applicants for J-1 and H-2B visas, is a good start. But I believe it is nowhere near enough to address the crisis.

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The covid-19 puzzle has stumped us for the time being. But we will find the answer. (Photo by … [+] VLADIMIR SMIRNOV/TASS

Allow me to make a few suggestions as to what more can be done.

My suggestion would be to grant any applicant with a bona fide professional degree in any health care science currently needed to address the Covid-19 outbreak, certainly doctors and nurses among them, an immediate B-1/B-2 visitor’s visa to immediately come to the United States. Granting the visa should be conditional on: a) an indication from the applicant that they want to help ease the health care crisis, b) they have no previous immigration problems, c) they are able to obtain a police clearance from every country where they have resided for more than six months (to be required within reason), and d) they provide a clear medical report. In addition, such applicants should be checked for signs of Covid-19 at the time of their appointment and at the time of their arrival into the United States.  

In addition, my suggestion would be to designate four immigration offices in the United States as Covid-19 only regional centers where applicants can go to apply for immediate temporary employment authorizations in the event that following their arrival they are able to locate an employer prepared to employ them in the fight against the Covid-19 virus. Such employment authorizations could be issued for one year, and if needed could be renewed. The purpose of these Covid-19 regional immigration centers also should be to facilitate the work of the health care community in any way possible through immigration priority processing.

Gregory Siskind, a U.S. immigration attorney recently told NPR that a huge problem is looming this summer, when 4,000 international doctors are supposed to begin their residencies at U.S. hospitals but may not receive their visas in time because U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide have suspended routine visa processing. Hopefully processing will improve by then.

A couple of other points.

There are many physicians in the U.S. who are not yet board certified and who are working as nurses, surgical assistants and in other menial jobs for the time being. Many are qualified and some have even worked under the supervision board certified physicians for many years. Many are from good universities and completed their training in countries like India, Pakistan, Philippines, etc. Why not tap into this population to give them limited licenses to work in underserved areas under the supervision of licensed physicians during this crisis?

Also,  one U.S. nurse was telling me, “third party companies hire temporary staff for hospitals. These companies ask for one year of hospital experience in the specialty needed. In the case of Covid-19, these are ICU and ER nurses. Some looking for Med/Surg nurses. As an outpatient Pre-op, Circulating, and PACU nurse, I have spoken to several travel companies that will not send me to NYC because of not having the hospital setting specialty on my resume. And I would be there in a heartbeat.” Looks like we need to address this problem as well as turning to foreign nurses.

It seems that only a vaccine will ultimately solve the problem. But that will take time. Immigration of foreign health care workers is obviously not a panacea. But it is a start. Foreign health care workers can at least help us deal with the problem for now, until a solution is found.

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