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Mass. delegation calls on Trump administration to resume visa processing for international health care workers

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/Associated Press

The Massachusetts congressional delegation on Friday urged Trump administration officials to resume processing visas for foreign-born medical school students and health care workers as hospitals brace for a surge in coronavirus patients.

As part of his travel-related coronavirus restrictions, President Trump last week suspended all routine visa services around the world, a move that Massachusetts members of Congress said could prevent urgently needed workers — specifically medical residents and fellows — from traveling to the United States to report to jobs caring for sick patients.

“Though the residents and fellows that comprise this workforce are referred to as trainees, they are the backbone of bedside patient care, and are critical to our ability to provide high quality medical care. They cannot be replaced,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad F. Wolf. The letter, organized by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Ayanna Pressley and signed by all 11 members of the state’s congressional delegation, notes that a quarter of medical residents and fellows at Tufts Medical Center in Boston are working under such visas.

“The city of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and our country cannot afford to delay visa processing for health care providers,” the letter continued. “As U.S. medical centers work tirelessly to handle the surge in health care needs during this crisis, it is imperative that we do everything we can to fully staff these facilities.”

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Coronavirus cases are already beginning to overwhelm hospitals in New York City, and in Massachusetts cases continue to rise every day, with more than 800 new cases on Friday alone.

Looking to increase their capacity to care for those needing intensive care, hospitals in the state have suspended elective surgeries and medical schools are graduating fourth-year students early to get more help to the front lines of the crisis. The moves come even as health care providers themselves are becoming sick with the virus. More than 160 Boston hospital workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Globe reported this week.

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The State Department signaled this week it could resume processing the visas needed by health care workers, according to the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates.

But in some cases, the visa issues have already had an effect on doctors working in the US. A doctor in South Carolina told NPR that he was frustrated at not being able to pitch in on the front lines of the crisis in New York or New Jersey because he could not complete the necessary paperwork to move to a different hospital at closed Citizenship and Immigration Services offices.

“There’s a dire need of physicians especially in places like New York, New Jersey,” Kiran Nagarajan told NPR. “I wish I can go and help there.”

Read the full letter:


Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.