Doctors and nurses are signing up for the coronavirus fight in hotspots like New York, but many fear they'll be needed back home

Key Points
  • Doctors are starting to fly to New York and other hotspots to volunteer to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Dr. Josh Mugele is among them, after he explained the risks to his family. 
  • But other physicians and nurses say they are still struggling with the decision because they don't have enough information to know if there will be an outbreak back home.
Bodies are moved to a refrigeration truck serving as a temporary morgue at Wyckoff Hospital in the Borough of Brooklyn on April 6, 2020 in New York.
Bryan R. Smith | AFP | Getty Images

When Dr. Josh Mugele heard New York's Governor Andrew M. Cuomo's call for help treating thousands of patients stricken with COVID-19, he felt the pull to volunteer. Mugele, who's been trained in emergency medicine and has worked in disaster zones, is employed by a health system about an hour northeast from Atlanta. His hospital hasn't yet seen a spike in cases of the novel coronavirus, so Mugele has been less busy than usual. 

"I'm been feeling particularly useless over the past few weeks," Mugele said in a phone interview. "I think we'll get a surge here at some point, but I knew that the need was more urgent elsewhere, and I haven't pulled my weight yet."

So Mugele starting talking to his family and his employer, Northeast Georgia Medical Center, about flying out to New York, which has more than 150,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Georgia, by contrast, has fewer than 11,000 confirmed cases. 

New York's policymakers have repeatedly called for doctors, nurses and other medical workers to join the fight against the coronavirus. About 90,000 have volunteered to do so, with about 25,000 offering to fly in from other states, the governor's office told reporters on Wednesday. But fewer than 1,000 of them have been placed into hospitals, the New York Times reported, and many are still sitting idle as the state works to iron out problems with having an influx of applications. 

Mugele said he found the process relatively smooth, but he's working for free as a volunteer at New York's public hospitals. It took a few weeks for him to go through an emergency credentialing process to confirm his licenses, along with a few other checks, before he was assigned to the Metropolitan Hospital Center is a hospital in East Harlem.

He's bringing with him a few pairs of scrubs and four N95 respirator masks, which he recognizes he'll need to sanitize and reuse. 

"My family knows the risks as well as I do, and we talked openly about it," he said. "I looked at my will, created a list of accounts and wrote letters to my kids just in case." 

Mugele arrived in New York on Wednesday for orientation, and has heard that he might be reassigned to a hospital in Brooklyn. 

The process for credentialing and assigning medical workers like Mugele to hospitals could improve in time as health officials iron out the kinks. But an ongoing challenge, half-a-dozen medical professionals told CNBC, is that the virus is spreading quickly and it's hard to predict where the next hotspot will be.

Lack of federal coordination

That information gap makes it difficult for them to know where they're needed most. 

There are, of course, some data modeling efforts that attempt to predict the likely cases, state by state, but it's by no means definitive. 

"There appears to be no coordination of providers, certainly not at a federal level," said Dr. Dan Buckland, an emergency medicine doctor at Duke. Buckland has been considering signing up, but he's concerned that if he travels, he would need to be quarantined for up to two weeks before he could treat patients after returning to his home state of North Carolina. 

Dr. Buckland said he's not overwhelmed yet with COVID-19 cases and his hospital is not running low on protective equipment, but fears that he would be needed if there's an outbreak. He also shared that his family is concerned for his wellbeing, given the shortages of protective equipment in many states. 

Dr. Mark Shapiro, a hospitalist based in Santa Rosa, California, shared a similar sentiment.

Shapiro said he's considered getting on a plane and flying out to a hotspot, but he's still watching the curve on California. He said he would need more information to determine whether it's the right thing for him to volunteer in a different states. 

"We get this impulse where we want to go when we hear the sound of the guns," he said. "But a lot of us have responsibilities at home we need to acknowledge."

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