Retired Minnesota nurses want to help, but red tape is keeping many on the sidelines during pandemic

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As hospitals around the state prepare for an expected surge of COVID-19 patients, experienced nurses may be forced to stay on the sidelines.

The Minnesota Board of Nursing has received as many as 12 calls a day from retired nurses looking to help during the crisis. Late last week, the state official directing the emergency response suggested such nurses could be called on to help if a surge of cases overwhelms the health care system.

But 5 INVESTIGATES has found red tape is blocking many nurses from reactivating their licenses. By law, retired nurses who have been out of healthcare for an extended period of time need to complete clinical evaluations to become active, and most health care facilities are no longer doing that because of the virus.

Morris Kleiner, an occupational license expert and professor at the University of Minnesota, believes the state needs to look at easing restrictions soon.

“It seems like now would be a good time to relax these assumptions,” Kleiner said.

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He describes it as a “battlefield technique” that states like Michigan and New York — which are seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases right now — have already enacted.

“Many other states are relaxing their licensing requirements and allowing individuals who haven’t fully complied with the current statues to work because of the surge in demand for nurses,” Kleiner said.

Joe Kelly, director of Homeland Security & Emergency Management at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said on Friday that retired nurses could help staff so-called pop-up hospitals.

“We have not yet figured out how to staff those centers, some of it depends on the modeling that’s been talked about,” Kelly said.

First in line to meet the demand may be recently laid off nurses who are out of work due to elective surgeries being canceled, but the Minnesota Hospital Association is also calling on Gov. Tim Walz to issue an executive order that would “bring all hands on deck.”

“We are also supportive of the state determining how to bring back retired nurses and retired physicians to respond to COVID-19,” said Emily Lowther, spokesperson for the association. “We are only asking for this during the time of the declared emergency.”

A spokesman for Walz’s office said the governor is monitoring the situation. He did issue an executive order last week to ease restrictions, but it did not address the clinical requirement that the board says is keeping retired nurses at home.