North Dakota recruits health workers for worst-case scenario

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota officials say they are confident the state will have enough hospital beds and equipment to handle the coming flood of coronavirus cases. The one thing they’re worried about in a worst-case scenario is having enough health care workers.

The state should have 2,400 beds available by expanding existing facilities and could add 4,000 more by building temporary hospitals, according to Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann of the North Dakota National Guard. Thanks in part to the state Department of Health stockpiling emergency supplies over the years, there appears to be enough ventilators and protective gear for workers, said North Dakota Hospital Association President Tim Blasl.

However, Gov. Doug Burgum and his team have put out a call for volunteers, most importantly for doctors and nurses who may need to come out of retirement if the number of COVID-19 cases requires field hospitals in Fargo and Bismarck.

“We feel adequate at this point,” Blasl said. “But there’s always the fear of the unknown.”

Phil Davis, a Job Service North Dakota executive who is helping with the governor’s Workforce Coordination Center, said the volunteer hotline has been busy. Within the first hour of the call for help with various tasks, the WCC received 81 inquiries, more than half from people with medical experience. The total number of health care volunteers stood at 149 on Thursday, Davis said.

Dr. Misty Anderson of Sanford Health in Valley City said many smaller hospitals like hers could become stressed if two or three nurses get sick and are out of the rotation for 14 days. She added that it would be “disastrous” if the virus began to spread in the city’s only nursing home.

“You can’t get volunteers off the street to be a nurse,” said Anderson, who also serves as president of the North Dakota Medical Association.

The hospital association has put out a statement asking hospitals to postpone some elective surgeries to preserve equipment and beds. That could free up more nurses, in particular.

While some health care workers are considering coming out of retirement, one of Anderson’s partners is extending his. Dr. Jim Buhr, 74, who is also the county’s public health officer, planned to retire on May 1 and test out his new canoe. Instead he has extended his stay to Sept. 1, even though his age puts him at greater risk to contract the new coronavirus than Anderson, 38.

“He is willing to step in and work because he doesn’t want anything to happen to me,” she said.

While Anderson and Buhr wonder out loud whether it would make more sense to have the younger, healthier workers put in longer shifts rather than recruiting retirees, Buhr cites a public health acronym, YPLL, or years of potential life lost. That’s typically a factor doctors consider in outbreaks or disasters that have large numbers of deaths, he said.

“It’s not as big a tragedy for an old person to die as a young person. I probably have 10 years of potential life lost,” said Buhr, whose career has included numerous health care missions to Africa. “What about our young physicians who are raising families? What if something were to happen to them? That’s mathematically a much bigger tragedy when you consider years of potential life lost.”


This story has been corrected to show that Dr. Anderson’s age is is 38.