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Opinion

Editorial: Newsom opens the door to more doctors and nurses, but it needs to be opened wider

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California’s medical system — and the nation’s, for that matter — need more of just about everything to cope with the oncoming wave of COVID-19 cases. More ICU beds, more masks, gowns, ventilators and tests.

They also need more doctors and nurses.

The disease already is taking a toll on medical professionals in New York City, sickening and even killing some and requiring others to be quarantined. California and the rest of the nation must take notice and move quickly to create adequate staff for existing hospital beds and for the new ones being brought on line to fight the virus.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced some first steps toward putting untapped medical expertise to work — steps that we hope will make it possible to move students nearing the end of their training as well as retired and other former professionals into the workforce. But the vague announcement left unclear what changes would be made and how fast. That’s disappointing. At this point, the governor must move swiftly and purposefully to bring these healthcare workers where they are badly needed.

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As an article last week in The Times explained, 10,000 California nursing students are within a couple of months of completing their training and could bolster the ranks of hard-working hospital crews. The problem is that the nursing students need more clinical training to complete their degrees, but coronavirus lockdowns are keeping them from getting that training. So far, the state has refused to let students fill the gap by learning through computer simulations.

Other states have led the way in overcoming such dilemmas. Idaho announced it would grant temporary emergency licenses; Texas softened the rules governing how many hours nursing students must work in hospital training rotations.

Newsom outlined a system that might temporarily allow these nursing students to work under the supervision of hospital staff. Decisions would be made later about whether they must complete their formal training once the crisis is over or whether they would be considered ready for permanent licenses.

Doctors are badly needed as well, and last week, New York University’s medical school became the first to announce that it would graduate fourth-year students early if they volunteered to take internships at the university’s affiliated hospitals. Within days, several other medical schools followed suit. Officials in Massachusetts urged that state’s medical schools to join the early-graduation movement, offering provisional licenses to the newly minted doctors. All four of its schools signed on, including Tufts and Harvard, which calls its early-graduation offer “Option to Serve.”

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Newsom’s announcement Monday included a mention of medical students but lacked details about how the state would bring them on board. This state has a lineup of excellent medical schools, six of them run by the University of California; the governor should consider following Massachusetts’ lead.

Failing to tap this crucial resource borders on the ridiculous. Doctors who’ve gone to medical school for nearly four years and nurses who are within two months of graduation — isn’t it obvious that they have learned and practiced the skills we need and that government, facing this enormous resource crisis, should be turning over every possible stone to put them on the job within two weeks when the crush comes? Let’s not let stodgy bureaucracy stand in the way of this.

The state appears to be moving more quickly on another front — bringing seasoned doctors back from retirement. If their licenses lapsed less than five years ago, Newsom said, they will be given a shortcut back to being practicing doctors.

Less clear was whether nurse practitioners would finally be allowed to treat patients without the direct oversight of a doctor under certain circumstances. These nurses, who undergo extra training and have experience working with patients, have proven their ability to provide excellent medical care. The change is long overdue, and it would be desirable even without a deadly pandemic in our midst.

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Newsom has the right idea. There are thousands of medical professionals ready to step up to treat the rest of us, despite the potential risk to themselves.

All states should be considering these steps. We’ve seen how quickly the number of COVID-19 cases can multiply and overwhelm our medical system. No one should be waiting around for that to happen without bringing more of these qualified hands on deck.


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