Every day, he goes online and checks his messages again and again, and every day is the same: no response. George Weinhouse, a 67-year-old retired anesthesiologist, answered the call weeks ago for volunteers with medical experience to help New York weather the worst pandemic since 1918.
Mr Weinhouse stepped out of his comfortable post-career life, submitted his registration and credentials, and waited. Even as the coronavirus crisis approaches its peak in New York, straining the medical system like no other previous disaster, he’s still waiting.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Mr Weinhouse was among 89,456 medical volunteers ready to relieve exhausted front-line health providers. But just 7,000 have been assigned to a job, leaving about 92 per cent yet to be deployed.
“I don’t know what’s going on here. I don’t understand this,” Mr Weinhouse said this week, in the most recent of several telephone interviews with The Washington Post. “I’m waiting and I want to help, and I mean, it’s really frustrating.”
Some within city and state government say it’s good to have far more volunteers than hospitals actually need. Hospitals are prioritising certain specialties more than others, a state health department spokesperson said: physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, respiratory therapists, respiratory therapist technicians and registered nurses.
Government officials added that a state database created for the effort compiles and automatically vets volunteers and checks professional licenses, but individual hospitals or systems are responsible for requesting and assigning staffers, along with training and determinations for shifts and potential compensation.
But some volunteers said they are willing to work for free and perform any task. A few, including Mr Weinhouse, lamented lax communication and the feeling of being in an indefinite holding pattern, even as governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, appears on television most days to describe a worsening crisis and plead for urgent assistance.
“Please come help us in New York now,” Mr Cuomo said last week as the state’s daily death toll passed 250.
It has since more than tripled that, and overall more than 6,200 New Yorkers – nearly three-quarters of them in New York City – have died, as of Wednesday evening.
“You keep on hearing elected officials saying: ‘We’re at war, we’re at war,’ ” said an individual who spent eight years as a first responder in Manhattan and, after submitting his name and qualifications on the volunteer portal on 18 March, has received only automated responses and has been unable to sign up for EMT shifts. “So if we’re at war, where are our reinforcements?”
That individual was among several who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution or because they hadn’t been authorised to speak publicly. If a volunteer is placed, some hospitals include a clause in their contracts that prohibits them from speaking with the media.
Mr Weinhouse said he has reapplied to both the city’s Medical Reserve Corps and state’s database in the past two weeks. He submitted his credentials to a hospital chain and this week sent a message to a different hospital, offering to help even with administrative duties. Weeks earlier, he withdrew from a class on directing theatre productions, set aside other responsibilities, cleared his schedule. All he does now, he said, is check his email “10 times a day”.
“I’m not blaming anybody,” he said. “But I would hope that since the need is so great, they’d be able to use us in some way.”
Late last month, Jess Schneider was told that a hospital near Central Park had an urgent need for volunteer nurses. Assigned a start date of 30 March, she left her home in Boise, Idaho, and made the 38-hour drive east. She arrived in Manhattan, New York, moved into her sister’s apartment, and didn’t start until Monday.
“I raced to get here, and I’ve just been sitting,” Ms Schneider said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from her hospital’s break room. She walked around the city, saw a few sights and mostly waited for instructions.
She declined to identify which hospital she was eventually assigned to and said it was important to point out that, as a volunteer, Ms Schneider does not officially represent any health organisation.
But, she said, the confusion has intensified since her first shift. She learned of a dramatic compensation disparity, with some nurses earning $10,000 (£8040) weekly stipends, she said, and others signing contracts that paid a fraction of that. Ms Schneider said she makes $2,000 (£1600) per week. Her hospital lacks a sufficient number of N95 masks, she said, and it is not testing the ones it has to make sure they fit. Some nurses have refused to work without masks that fit properly, she said.
If there is indeed an abundance of volunteers in the state and city databases, Ms Schneider said, they’re certainly not at her hospital. She said it is impossible to provide sufficient care to each of her patients simply because of their numbers.
Ms Schneider said that in previous hospital jobs, there was roughly one nurse for every four patients. Here, she said, it’s a dozen patients per nurse, with some rooms crammed with four or five beds. Some nurses signed agreements to work 21 consecutive days, with 12-hour shifts that often last much longer, and no time off.
“I don’t know who’s in charge,” Ms Schneider said, adding that she reported for work at 7am on Wednesday and waited nearly 90 minutes before being given instructions. “It’s total, utter chaos.”
Ms Schneider said she has tried to shield patients and their families from her overwhelming stress, though sometimes it spills over.
During her first day, she entered the room of a coronavirus patient who was near death and leaned the sick woman forward so she could look into a tablet and see her family as they said goodbye. Ms Schneider said she felt a flood of emotion coming and needed to walk away. She then apologised to the grieving family because, with the ward short-staffed, Ms Schneider had to check in with other patients.
“It was horrible,” she said two days later. “This is what we’ve been hearing about, and this is real.”
On Wednesday morning, Ms Schneider said she was one of two nurses on a floor with 18 beds, all of them filled.
“You kind of expect a s*** show. I didn’t expect one this big,” she said. But when asked whether she regretted volunteering, she paused before saying no. “It’s what we do. I don’t know if every nurse feels like that, but it’s what we do.”
Late in Mr Weinhouse’s career, he taught a class at New York University’s teaching hospital. He found himself harping on one tenet of the Hippocratic oath more than the others: that, if needed, a medical professional should always answer the call.
He first recited the pledge when he graduated from medical school in 1978, and he said it is why he volunteered last month. New York needed him, Mr Weinhouse said, though he remains confused about why it has not taken him and the thousands of others up on their willingness to help.
“We’re all trying to do what’s right,” he said. “But we’re all in the same holding pattern for whatever reason.”
When Mr Weinhouse retired three years ago from NYU Langone Medical Centre, he knew a traditional retirement was not for him. He loved the theatre, and his first volunteer assignment was working as an assistant stage manager for a small, off-Broadway production. He draped his stethoscope, which he had worn most days for the previous 20 years, on a shelf next to his opera CDs, theatre books, and preserved show reviews Mr Weinhouse had written in his spare time.
He said he can remember his walk to work on the first day of his new job in show business, along with those feelings of being overwhelmed but essential. He wanted to direct a show someday, and earlier this year he signed up for a class on theatre direction.
“I’m not the person who sits around,” he said. “I don’t like sitting around. I really don’t.”
That was before the coronavirus, though, and Mr Weinhouse followed the soaring numbers of confirmed cases in New York and again felt called to a life he thought he had left behind. Unconcerned with getting sick himself – other than some mild hypertension, Mr Weinhouse said, he is healthy – he signed up, quit the stage production, withdrew from the class. He was looking forward to using his old stethoscope again and taking another walk to a new job.
Mr Weinhouse initially expressed a preference for working on overflow hospitals such as the USNS Comfort ship or the field hospital built by the US Army Corps of Engineers at the Javits Center. But he said he would work anywhere and do anything: administrative work, organising an emergency room, scheduling. He said he never asked to be paid.
Without an assignment, Mr Weinhouse spends much of his time watching the news, he said, which reminds him that while people keep dying and hospitals keep filling, his phone isn’t ringing.
“It’s really aggravating. I can’t explain it,” Mr Weinhouse said. “I’d just like the state to explain what’s going on.”
The Washington Post
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