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Michigan officials are pulling out the stops to boost the ranks of health care workers, the next frontier in meeting critical needs for the state's COVID-19 health crisis.

Strategies for finding more front-line troops include asking retired professionals to come back to work, relaxing the scope of practice laws and expediting the credentials of college students who have completed their health care programs. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer even posted a video Monday on Twitter, asking health care workers from around the country to come to Michigan to help.

"If you are a health professional anywhere in America, Michigan needs you," Whitmer said. "Detroit, Michigan, especially needs you. We are calling on doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists and other health professionals to sign up and help us fight COVID-19."

The move comes as the number of COVID-19 cases in Michigan continues to skyrocket, especially in Detroit, where more than 70 people have died, and officials have rushed to address shortages of ventilators, protective equipment and hospital beds.

"Bed capacity (and other needs) has gotten a lot of attention," said John Karasinski, spokesman for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. "Having enough health care workers and staff in order to treat all those patients is critical."

Hospitals in southeast Michigan employ 120,249 health care workers, including 51,761 nurses, according to the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

But that is not enough, Whitmer said.

That's why the governor and her team have called on retirees, volunteers and others to help care for the growing number of COVID-19 patients.

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Metro Detroit hospitals already are using a variety of strategies to meet the sudden surge in demand.

Dr. Steven Kalkanis, chief executive officer of the Henry Ford Medical Group and senior vice president and chief academic officer for Henry Ford Health System, is leading a “massive redeployment effort” across the five-hospital system. 

About 350 physicians, 325 nurses and advanced practice providers are reporting to places they don’t normally work, Kalkanis said. 

“Our biggest need is the emergency department and ICU, anything related to respiratory and drive-thru testing," he said. "For instance, we’re having radiologists managing drive-thru testing lines or ear, nose and throat specialists pairing up with someone in another medical area.” 

Beaumont Health, the state’s largest health care system, is tapping into its contingent and retired workforce, seeking temporary workers from agencies, using medical residents and moving clinicians who are in non-direct patient care roles back into direct patient care, said Aaron Gillingham, senior vice president and chief human resources officer. 

Employees who work in nonclinical care roles also are being moved to serve other needs. One staff member who works in information technology is now serving as an emergency management leader in Beaumont's corporate incident command center, Gillingham said. 

“As of right now, we are staffed to handle the volume of patients we are currently caring for, but staffing resources face new challenges every day, particularly as volume of COVID-19 patients grow,” he said.

“We are monitoring what has been happening in New York and other parts of the country, and we’re being as proactive as we can."

Michigan had 7,615 cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, and 259 deaths linked to the virus. Of those infected in Michigan, more than 25% are in Detroit, where more than 2,000 people are stricken with the virus.

COVID-19 is a virus that has no vaccine, no cure and has rapidly spread around the world since late December to create a global pandemic that has shut down most of public life. It has infected more than 800,000 people around the world and claimed the lives of nearly 40,000 people, according to the Johns Hopkins Corona Virus Resource Center.

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'Early graduation'

Medical and nursing schools are trying to make newly trained health care professionals available sooner in Michigan.

Michigan State University is speeding up educational certifications of students in health care programs, and Oakland University is looking closely at doing the same.

While the issue has been portrayed as an "early graduation," Michigan State is simply issuing education certificates a few weeks sooner for fourth-year medical students who are poised to graduate, said Aron Sousa, interim dean of the MSU College of Human Medicine, where newly minted medical doctors are scheduled to graduate May 9.

"We are not reducing their educational requirements," Sousa said. "The goal at the end of the day is to have more physicians to take care of patients."

To get more health care workers into the field sooner to assist in the COVID-19 crisis, MSU will speed up the licensing process for 87 baccalaureate-prepared nurses, 61 medical doctors and 213 osteopathic physicians.

Meanwhile, Oakland University President Dr. Ora Pescovitz said the Rochester-based university hasn't made a decision but is examining the possibility of doing the same for students scheduled to graduate this spring.

Health care workers are overwhelmed and overworked, and the number of patients entering hospitals continues to rise, she said.

So far, areas such as hospital capacity, personal protection equipment and testing have taken priority, said Pescovitz, who previously headed the health care system at the University of Michigan. While these are all crucial, she said the need for professionals to care for the sick is just as critical.

"If we just depended on the resources we have, we would have too many people die," she said. "As it is, people are going to die. We are working at reducing the number of people who are going to die."

Patient overflow

Oakland University will open one of its dorms, Hillcrest Hall, this week to health care workers who will live there while assisting Beaumont Health, Pescovitz said. More heath care workers are expected to move onto OU's campus in the near future, including some coming from outside Michigan.

Hospitals are expanding spaces in their facilities to care for COVID-19 patients.

But as they run out of room, health centers are moving into nonmedical buildings that are being converted into treatment facilities. 

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessed 15 sites in Michigan as potential overflow facilities for patients. On Tuesday, the corps were constructing a 1,000-bed treatment center in TCF Center in downtown Detroit.  

The University of Michigan health system also announced it planned to open a field hospital next week in Ann Arbor at the university's indoor track at the South Athletics Facility. 

All of these facilities will need additional health care workers.

That's why the governor in recent days called on retirees to serve and relaxed health care regulations to allow qualified physician assistants, nurses and other health care providers to treat COVID-19 patients.

"We relaxed rules around licensure and certification to make it easier to serve," Whitmer said. "And because it's an emergency, there are special protections around medical errors."

The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs is working to issue credentials for health care workers.

Since March 16, LARA has issued 599 licenses to various medical professionals including doctors, nurses and physician assistants, according to David Harns, LARA's spokesman. The majority of the licenses issued, 303, went to registered and licensed practical nurses, Harns said. But only 60 of those nurses had Michigan addresses, he said.

LARA is also working with higher education institutions to expedite credentials for fourth-year medical students.

"For doctors, we are allowing medical schools to tell LARA that students have completed the requirements for their degree even if they haven’t gone through the ceremonial graduation yet. This allows LARA to quickly grant licenses and get more MDs into the workforce," Harns said.  

"For nurses, we are doing the same ... plus temporarily waiving the requirement that nurses take their national exams during this emergency. This requirement can be fulfilled once the emergency is lifted."

The governor and her team along with LARA have encouraged the schools and other stakeholders to support this effort, Harns added. 

"Our team has been working around the clock since this crisis began to make sure we have as many professionals as possible ready to step in and help,” LARA Director Orlene Hawks said.

“This expedited process is a direct result of Gov. Whitmer’s continued efforts to increase the speed at which health care professionals can get into the workforce to assist with responding to COVID-19.”

Last week at Great Lakes Bay Health Center in Saginaw, fourth-year medical students from Central Michigan University volunteered to help at the facility's drive-thru COVID-19 testing center.

“Our medical students are awesome,” Gail Huber wrote in a Facebook post about the event. “They step up when needed, not only for the coronavirus but also for our community.”

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kkozlowski@detroitnews.com 

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