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Retired health professionals and students join the fight against coronavirus

States across the country have asked both retired health professionals and students to join those already on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak. They answered the call in abundance.

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By Maura Hohman

As the coronavirus outbreak creates shortages of health care workers across the country, retirees and students alike are stepping up to fill the need.

Over the past few weeks, government officials from several states have asked experienced clinicians who are no longer practicing, as well as nursing and medical students, to help treat patients sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo encouraged “nurses and doctors who may not be in the hospital, direct medical care occupation … to sign up for possible reserve duty.”

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In a news briefing on March 16, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order to “cut through the red tape” so physicians, nurses and pharmaceutical professionals from other states can practice locally.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs put out a similar call-to-action Tuesday via social media. New York University is also allowing medical students to graduate early to address the strain on hospitals.

Health care workers have responded in abundance. Nationwide, the Medical Reserve Corps, a network of medical and public health professionals, has more than 175,000 volunteers.

One nurse, Christine McNeal, who’d stopped working with patients so she could teach, told NBC News that she’s providing testing to her community in Dutchess County, New York.

“I just assume that everybody is positive,” she said. “I do a lot of testing on the back porch, in the garage.”

Another retired nurse, Donella Fields, based in Spotsylvania, Virginia, told NBC News that she called the emergency room where she used to work and offered to get involved.

“I don’t want somebody to be there needing help, and there isn’t somebody there to help them,” she said. “I don’t want to be one of those people who didn’t do anything.”

Nursing student Alyssa Ryan, who will graduate this spring, told TODAY that she wasn’t going to let “a few months” stop her “from being on the front lines as much as possible.” Now, she’s triaging phone calls at a county health department in New Jersey, she said.

Dr. Jane Bedell, a 63-year-old primary care physician who spent about 20 years working with patients, and 17 years at the New York City’s health department, retired barely a month ago. Last week, she signed up for New York City’s Medical Reserve Corps.

Although she intended to volunteer during retirement, she didn’t plan to do it so quickly.

“I thought, let me get retired and see what life is about, and I’ll do that in the next (year),” she told TODAY. “But then I thought, whoa, this is all happening, and I’m feeling for my colleagues … That ‘join the Medical Reserve Corps’ part of my to-do list got bumped up a little higher and a little higher.”

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Although she hasn’t been placed on an assignment yet, Bedell imagines she’ll return to either patient care or public health. For now, she’s preparing for her new role — “I’m trying to eat well and get a lot of rest,” she said — and figuring out the best way to help that doesn’t risk her and her family’s health.

“I’m ready to go in a safe way wherever the need is,” she explained. “I don’t want to get sick and end up hogging up a hospital bed and ventilator that someone else could’ve used.”

While Bedell's decision to volunteer comes with life complications, it was the natural next step given her experience, she told TODAY.

“The magnitude of the challenge we’re facing is enormous,” she said. “I worry that some people aren’t taking it seriously enough on the national scale … I have to do something."