photo: EvergreenHealth Medical Center hospital in Kirkland, Washington
Among the first hospitals to cancel volunteer-staffed services was the EvergreenHealth Medical Center hospital in Kirkland, Washington, an early hot spot for Covid-19 cases in the U.S. Chona Kasinger/Bloomberg

To reduce risk of coronavirus transmission, U.S. hospitals have halted most volunteer services, further straining staff resources at the worst possible time.

Every week for the last four years, Cameron Oakes has spent hours cuddling and comforting premature babies in a neonatal intensive care unit of a Brooklyn hospital. She was part of a program that matched volunteers at the NewYork-Presbyterian facility with infants during times when family and hospital staff couldn’t be present.

“A lot of research shows that just holding a premature infant helps them gain weight and helps their brain develop faster,” she says. “So it is important that they get help, and, unfortunately, a lot of times hospital staff are too spread thin to do beyond what's medically necessary.”

But now hospital volunteer programs across the United States like the cuddler program have been suspended in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“This difficult decision was not made lightly, as we all recognize the incredible contribution you make every day. We believe this change is in the best interest for the health and wellbeing of our patients, our staff, and of our volunteers,” read a March 13 email to volunteers at NewYork-Presbyterian facilities. The hospital system suspended volunteer services on all of its campuses effective Monday, according to the letter.

Per a 2018 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, about 30% of Americans do volunteer service, with almost 10% of them provide health-related services such as counseling, medical care, fire/EMS, and protective services. More than 3,000 volunteers give their time every year at NewYork-Presbyterian facilities; they help provide companionship and emotional support to patients and their families in the emergency room and elsewhere, guiding people around facilities, explaining procedures, helping patients eat, playing music, performing clerical duties, and working with trained therapy dogs, according to the health system’s website.

Oakes, 21, understands why she’s been grounded. “Of course, there are benefits to being held more,” she told CityLab. “And not having volunteers is going to put pressure on the system. But if my staying home means that an infant that doesn’t have an immune system doesn’t get sick, then that’s all the better.”

Doctors, volunteer coordinators and volunteers themselves are worried that the suspension of hospital and health care volunteer programs could worsen patient anxieties and feelings of social isolation in an already uncertain time. And the withdrawal of thousands of volunteers from facilities across the U.S. could add to the burdens on a health care system that is about to take on an unprecedented challenge.

But experts say the measure is necessary to protect health care providers, patients and volunteers themselves. Many hospital volunteers are retirees and older adults, who most vulnerable to Covid-19. The CDC has recommended hospitals limit visitors to inpatient and long-term facilities; nursing homes and eldercare facilities have aggressively restricted visitors because of the coronavirus.

Since February 29, the volunteer program at EvergreenHealth, a health care system that oversees the hospital in Kirkland, Washington, where more than 100 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, has been suspended for in-person volunteer services, according to spokesperson Kay Taylor.

“We decided that we would ask our volunteers to continue to help us, but more so from home than at the front desk,” Taylor says. She said that in ordinary times, about a thousand volunteers were active in the EvergreenHealth system every day of the week.

EvergreenHealth volunteers typically work at hospital information desks and gift shops, help in emergency departments, visit people in hospice care, do office work, and interact with patients as part of animal-assisted therapy teams, according to the organization’s website.

Spokespeople at Boston Children’s Hospital, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Cleveland Clinic, Houston Methodist Hospital, the Mayo Clinic Health System, Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, and Harlem Hospital in Manhattan also confirmed that their regular volunteer programs had been suspended. The University of North Carolina Medical Center declared that most volunteer roles were paused on March 13.

The volunteer lockdown is happening as hospitals around the country scramble to prepare for the onslaught of the virus. Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, for example, announced last week that it was operating for the first time in “surge mode” to help deal with a potentially vast influx of patients. On Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that the state had only half the hospital beds it might need by the time the number of cases of the virus peaks, and less than a tenth of the ventilators that could be needed. Already, dozens of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers have fallen ill from the virus in the U.S., stretching a national health care system that has been criticized for overburdening its employees in ordinary times.

In those times, volunteers have an important to role to play. Dr. Danielle Ofri, an essayist and physician at Bellevue Hospital in New York, described volunteers’ services as “mortar between the bricks,” providing a human touch behind medical care that could now be lost. “The hospital can run without them — I wouldn't call it crucial — but much smoother with them,” Ofri said.

There was additional concern around the country about the absence of volunteers in palliative care settings, particularly given the possible impending spike in deaths nationwide. At Navian Hawaii, a hospice center in Honolulu, volunteers provide companionship and do chores for patients and their families, and perform “light physical care” for people near death.

Dr. Craig Nakatsuka, an associate medical director at Navian, says that the hospice’s volunteer program had been suspended to stem the coronavirus’ spread. But he added that hospices around the country may soon have to consider reinstating volunteers with additional training to meet an increased need.

“How will the hospices adjust to trying to fulfill their mission that no one dies alone?” he says. “If the staff is overwhelmed by the number of people dying, and they cannot possibly go out, is there a place for volunteers who can get some basic training ... to supplement that? It would be really something that the hospices should be considering now.”

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