Rashawn Collier’s family isn’t too pleased that he’s taken a 13-week assignment in the Northwell hospital system to help on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I feel like this is my calling, and this is where I belong,” said Collier, a nurse. “Every time I go home, I feel like there's another patient out there that I can help, another family I can support.”

Collier lives in Crown Heights, but he’s a full-time traveling nurse. He usually works in upstate hospitals, where nurses are in short supply. But he recently completed an eight-month stint at New York Presbyterian in Queens – where the last several weeks were brutal.

“It got to a point where I lost three or four patients a day, some in their early 30s, like my age,” Collier said. “You’d be talking to them and they’d be doing okay, and before you know it, they’d plummet.”

To treat the growing ranks of Covid patients, New York has frantically added ventilators, hospital beds, and makeshift treatment centers. And getting fresh healthcare workers has been no less challenging. About 90,000 healthcare workers have volunteered to help – including about 25,000 from out of state – but vetting them and slotting them into beleaguered hospitals has been slow.

“It's really encouraging to see the large number of health professionals that have responded to the governor's call for workers,” said Edward Salzburg, Director of Health Workforce Studies at the George Washington University School of Public Health. “The question is whether the systems are in place that: one, recruits these individuals; two, assesses them; three, places them in an appropriate setting; and, four, provides adequate supervision of them.”

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Northwell, the largest private health network in the state – and one of its most profitable — has not been waiting for the state to vet recruits. It has contracted with medical staffing companies to bring in nurses from Connecticut to California. Collier is one of about 700 nurses Northwell officials estimate they’ll eventually import through a company called Cross Country Nurses, to reinforce their staff at 18 hospitals in New York City, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties.

At the network’s Institute for Nursing, on its flagship campus in New Hyde Park, incoming nurses spend a half-day going through a series of brief workshops to acquaint them with Northwell's protocols on everything from drawing blood to operating ventilators to performing CPR.

“We have never run so many programs at the same time with so many people with one goal,” said Launette Woolforde, vice-president for nursing education. “To get them to the floors, meaning the clinical units, as quickly as possible, as safely as possible, and as ready-to-practice as possible.”

The largely suburban Northwell, though, has exceptional resources that many hospital systems lack. Salzburg, a Bronx native who worked for the New York State Health Department for many years, says the state appears to be doing its job as well as possible, but that national leadership is needed to allocate workers more systematically – especially as so-called “hot spots” multiply across the country.

“What we could really use is a major clearinghouse to identify practitioners with ability and willingness to move,” he said. Such a clearinghouse would pair them with the most desperate communities and hospital, “so that you don't have every single state on their own trying to identify and recruit these individuals.”

Patricia Savage, RN, leads a workshop in operating ventilators.

Patricia Savage, RN, leads a workshop in operating ventilators.

Patricia Savage, RN, leads a workshop in operating ventilators.
Fred Mogul / WNYC

Some nurses are used to traveling to disaster areas, and for others it’s new.

Ellen Hanson, an emergency room nurse from La Crosse, Wisconsin, has been to Liberia to help Ebola patients and came to New York in 2012 to help with relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy. She said she’s not troubled by reports about lack of personal protective equipment here.

“I'm used to those limited-resource settings,” Hanson said. “Everywhere I’ve traveled internationally – places where there's been measles, there's been TB, there's been HIV -- there’s no protection. So this is kind of like Africa, but maybe even a little better.”

Hanson “only” signed up for six weeks at Northwell, in case the Covid-19 outbreak comes to rural Wisconsin, where she lives, and she’s needed back home. If not, she is open to extending her time in New York or traveling to other parts of the country where she’s needed.

A 33-year veteran at her hospital, Hanson doesn’t get much of a pay bump by coming to fight Covid. But that’s unusual. Most of the people the Cross Country Nurses agency hires make at least twice their normal wage — and some get four times as much, for high-demand specialties.

“Does it compensate for you risking your life? No, but it does help,” said Collier, the Brooklyn-based nurse.

Geena Raju, from Philadelphia, weighed many pros and cons before deciding to sign up with Cross Country and come to Long Island. She very much wants to help ailing patients and exhausted fellow nurses, and having her hourly salary doubled is enticing. But she’s also grown a bit nervous.

“I was excited at first, but that was a good two to three weeks ago,” said Raju, who’s worked as a hospital nurse for 13 years but is contracting as a traveling nurse for the first time. “With the news you're seeing, about how much they’re going through, getting to this peak, this apex, they’re talking about — I will say it became a little more and more concerning.”

Raju has had difficulty sleeping, but standing outside a ventilator operation refresher workshop, she said she’s ready for what’s ahead.

“This obviously is different than what we usually typically see in the hospital, but we see a lot,” she said. “I don’t really have second thoughts about coming, I just need to focus on what extra precautions I need to take and prepare my emotions and mental critical thinking.”

Raju signed on for eight weeks with Northwell. She, too, says if she’s not needed back home, she might stay longer – or travel elsewhere.