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Preparing for a surge in cases, Mass. recruits retired doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists

Dr. Paula Aucoin, a retired doctor, has been called back to work at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

At 68, Dr. Paula Aucoin is retired but fills in at Berkshire Medical Center a few weeks a year to cover doctors on vacation or at conferences. Now add coronavirus quarantines to the list.

She got the call March 7, when the Pittsfield hospital recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19. She left her daughter’s swim-a-thon and went in to relieve a physician who was exposed and had to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Aucoin, an infectious disease doctor who closed her practice in 2018, recently wrapped up a stint at the hospital testing and treating coronavirus patients. She plans to stay involved and participate in conference calls to help Berkshire Medical navigate the pandemic.


“It was eye-opening how easily this virus has spread,” said Aucoin, who has been practicing for 38 years.

To gird for a surge in COVID-19 cases, Governor Charlie Baker has put out the call for retired physicians like Aucoin, as well as nurses and other medical personnel, to come back to work. The state is trying to boost the ranks of health care professionals as the pandemic deepens and threatens to sideline more workers who get infected. Major hospitals in Boston are already reporting a sharp rise in the number of employees who have tested positive for the virus.

The governor has cut red tape to issue emergency temporary licenses to doctors who don’t have active licenses in Massachusetts. As of Tuesday, the state board of medicine had issued 1,368 emergency temporary licenses​, a number that is expected to grow significantly. The board is also allowing early graduation for fourth-year medical students, and medical school graduates can start their internships early.

Massachusetts has also activated MAResponds.org, an online registration system to create a database of volunteers, both medical and nonmedical, who can help with the public health emergency. More than 2,300 people have signed up so far. The state has an immediate need for respiratory therapists and public health nurses.


Meanwhile, the life-sciences community is compiling a list of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and lab technicians who are working at biotech companies and could be tapped to help overloaded hospitals.

“What we’re hearing is that staffs in hospitals are doing heroic work. They are working long hours,” said Rob Perez, founder of Life Science Cares, a Cambridge nonprofit, which is organizing the list. “Anything we can do to give whatever support we can.”

To encourage its medically trained staffers to join the front lines of the pandemic, Johnson & Johnson, the giant health care products company, on Friday introduced a paid-leave policy for employees who are medical personnel that will allow them to take up to 14 weeks off over the next year.

In explaining the policy, Lauren Moore, vice president of global community impact at J&J, wrote in a LinkedIn post: “We are a company with the health workers at our core . . . This runs in our blood and we are bringing everything that we have to the fight.”

J&J has nearly 3,000 employees in Massachusetts, including at an innovation center in Cambridge.

Massachusetts has not set a goal on how many medical personnel it wants to recruit. Other states have also put out similar requests for retirees to return to work. In New York, the hardest-hit state in the United States, with the most cases and deaths, more than 76,000 health care professionals have signed up to help with the surge.


Dr. Helen Boucher, the infectious disease chief at Tufts Medical Center, has been working with her counterparts at other Boston-area hospitals to make sure they are prepared when coronavirus cases peak. At the moment, hospitals have enough personnel.

As for how many new recruits the hospitals will need, Boucher said she doesn’t have a specific number in mind. But she knows this much, for sure: “The goal is to be as prepared as we can so we can save as many lives as we can.”

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.