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Hospitals redeploy thousands of health care workers to respond to COVID-19 crisis

MGH, Beth Israel, and others adjust to ‘unprecedented times’

Dr. Mitchel Harris, chief of orthopedic surgery at Mass. General, has canceled most of his surgeries to help the hospital focus on coronavirus patients.
Dr. Mitchel Harris, chief of orthopedic surgery at Mass. General, has canceled most of his surgeries to help the hospital focus on coronavirus patients.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

On a normal day, Dr. Mitchel Harris, chief of orthopedic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, would meet with patients in his clinic or see them in the operating room, where he’d fix their broken bones and torn tendons.

Yet recently he worked a very different job: as a scribe hunched over a laptop, diligently taking notes, in a makeshift clinic for patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

At Tufts Medical Center, nurses who usually work in operating rooms are swabbing patients to check them for coronavirus. At Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, administrators are staffing call centers. And at UMass Memorial Medical Center, doctors who normally see patients in a clinic are working shifts in a field hospital.

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In just a few weeks, thousands of Massachusetts hospital workers have been redeployed — suddenly thrust into new roles to respond to the coronavirus crisis. It’s an extraordinary effort that reflects the enormity of the pandemic and is crucial to hospitals’ ability to manage soaring numbers of patients sick with COVID-19. More than 3,700 people with confirmed or suspected coronavirus already have been hospitalized in Massachusetts.

The pandemic has swamped some hospital departments — including emergency rooms and intensive care units — while others are largely empty. Hospitals canceled elective surgeries and non-urgent appointments to prepare for the crisis. This has left many doctors, nurses, and administrative workers with a fraction of their usual workload, making them prime candidates for redeployment. Meanwhile, the pandemic has spawned a host of new jobs.

At Mass. General, more than 2,100 employees have been redeployed. At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, more than 1,200 have received temporary assignments.

Harris has put off most of his surgeries at Mass. General and is operating only on patients with traumatic injuries and urgent problems such as tumors. On other days, he goes where the hospital needs him.

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“Our greatest discomfort right now is our lack of being able to help other individuals the way we know best to do,” Harris said. “So the second-best is to help individuals in a way we’re not used to. We’re ready to embrace our role in helping the institution get through the crisis.”

All kinds of hospital workers are getting new assignments: technologists, physical therapists, nurses, doctors, research assistants, administrative assistants, department heads, vice presidents, and more.

“These are definitely unprecedented times for everybody,” said Lori Cunningham, director of talent acquisition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where 1,100 employees are on the redeployment list and 650 already have new assignments.

Some workers were moved to an assembly line to put together COVID-19 test kits, while others are distributing masks or fielding calls from employees worried about their own health. Nurses who usually work in outpatient clinics have been cross-trained to assist in the emergency room or ICU.

These assignments have brought new anxieties for many hospital staff, but also a renewed sense of purpose about their work.

Dr. Martha Welch Dyer, a urologist at Mass. General’s outpatient center in Danvers, typically treats patients with ailments such as kidney stones and urinary tract infections. But when she had to cancel most of her patient appointments and surgeries in March, she signed up for redeployment. Her new assignment was interviewing patients with possible coronavirus and taking notes while wearing head-to-toe protective gear.

“It’s exciting and a little nerve-wracking to contemplate doing something very different,” she said. “It’s an adrenaline rush."

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But not everyone is embracing their new roles — which in many cases are mandatory.

Sumaya Ahmed, a medical assistant who works in the ear, nose, and throat clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said she declined to take a new assignment involving COVID patients because she’s worried about contracting the virus.

“I just think it’s unfair, no matter what," she said, because working with contagious patients is not part of her job description. Now, Ahmed said, she’s no longer getting a paycheck.

Not all health care workers have the option to be redeployed; many have been furloughed. While hospitals are treating growing numbers of coronavirus patients, they’re also struggling financially after canceling other surgeries and appointments. About 700 people were temporarily laid off at Boston Medical Center, and almost 700 were furloughed or had their hours reduced at Tufts Medical Center.

Tufts has reassigned about 250 clinicians and other staff, including dermatologists who went to work in the COVID testing clinic, oral surgeons deployed to help patients on ventilators, and pediatric intensivists who shifted to treating critically ill adults.

Many nurses at Tufts have moved into new roles. Those who typically work in operating rooms have been testing patients for coronavirus, while others are helping in ICUs, which hold the sickest patients.

Operating room nurse Mary Havlicek Cornacchia is used to wearing personal protective equipment, such as masks, gowns, and gloves, during surgeries. Lately, she’s been helping doctors and nurses stay protected while they treat COVID patients in the ICU. Health care workers must wear and remove protective equipment correctly in order to prevent the spread of infection.

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“I’ll stand outside the room — they’re all glass doors — and pantomime, walk them through the process,” Cornacchia said. “You want to stop people from doing something wrong.”

Cornacchia, who cochairs the bargaining team for the nurses union at Tufts, said nurses mostly feel comfortable in their new roles — but they’re anxious. “There might come a day, if and when the hospital fills up beyond capacity, that some of us may be expected to take on a role that we do not feel qualified to do,” she said.

At UMass Memorial Medical Center, in Worcester, Rhonda Gunnard usually works at a desk in the lung and allergy clinic, checking in patients. After in-person appointments were canceled, Gunnard went to work in a tent where patients were tested for coronavirus. She continued to check in patients, but now standing outside with her laptop, wearing full protective gear — and her husband’s long johns to stay warm.

"In my desk job I never had to wear a mask or gloves or a gown, so that's kind of different for me," she said.

Many doctors who work in ambulatory clinics at UMass Memorial, meanwhile, have received a crash course in caring for hospitalized patients.

Instead of treating heart patients in his clinic, Dr. David McManus, a cardiologist, recently found himself in a completely unfamiliar setting: the DCU Center, where a convention hall has been converted into a field hospital for patients with COVID-19.

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McManus and his wife, a pediatrician, are both working new jobs during the pandemic. They’re worried about getting sick, but also glad to help.

“Neither of us really wanted to be in this environment," he said, "but this is what’s needed of us, so that’s what we’ll do.”


Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.