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Retired nurses returning to forefront, to help administer COVID-19 vaccines

A few Long Island hospitals have brought back

A few Long Island hospitals have brought back retired nurses to help with COVID-19 vaccinations. Diane Bendelier is one of them and talks about helping out during the pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

When NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island emailed retired nurse Diane Bendelier to ask if she would consider returning to help administer coronavirus vaccines, she didn’t hesitate.

"I wrote back immediately to say I’ll be there," Bendelier said. "How could you not?"

Bendelier, who cut short a visit to family in South Carolina to get a coronavirus test in preparation for the process, is one of five nurses at the Mineola hospital who have come out of retirement to help with the massive task of vaccinating millions of New Yorkers over the coming months. Seven retired nurses are now administering vaccines at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside.

They were asked to help because "we’re suddenly doing something we weren’t doing previously," said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at South Nassau. "In this era, it’s not like you have a ton of staff available to do all the work that needs to be done. We want to make sure we can do all the vaccinating we have to and at the same time not take away from patient care."

New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health hasn’t had to tap retired nurses yet but expects to do so — and possibly to recruit medical and nursing school students — as vaccinations expand to the general public, said Dr. Mark Jarrett, the system’s chief quality officer.

Long Island Community Hospital in Patchogue "canvassed our retired nurses" on returning to help with vaccinations, and one is scheduled to do so on Wednesday, said Richard Margulis, the Patchogue hospital’s president and CEO.

At Nassau University Medical Center, retired nurses have been helping with the COVID-19 effort since the spring, and some are assisting with vaccinations, with the hospital expecting to recruit more retired nurses as the number of vaccinations increases, said the East Meadow public hospital’s president and chief executive officer, Dr. Anthony Boutin.

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The early wave of vaccinations included nurses who Joanne Newcombe, of Massapequa Park, worked with at South Nassau before she retired in October 2019.

The vaccinations allow them to work with less concern they will get sick with the coronavirus and be forced to stay home — and away from the patients they dedicate themselves to caring for, Newcombe said.

"People go into the profession of health care because they’re givers, and they want to help other people," she said. "It’s frustrating when you can’t help someone to your fullest because you’re getting sick. "Knowing you can get a vaccine that is going to prevent you from getting sick and will give you a greater opportunity to help your patients is just amazing," she said.

Newcombe got vaccinated, but South Nassau nurse Maureen McGovern, 64, of Merrick, did not, because she already had the coronavirus and a test three weeks ago found she still had a high level of disease-fighting antibodies.

"The thought is I didn’t need to be vaccinated at this point, and to let all the front line workers get vaccinated first," she said.

Newcombe expects to administer vaccines through the spring. As she does, she thinks of those who died of COVID-19, including fellow health care workers.

"We all know nurses and doctors who have been lost in this pandemic," she said.

McGovern worked during the pandemic's spring peak, when South Nassau — like other New York hospitals — bought refrigerated trailers to store corpses because so many people were dying that funeral homes and cemeteries couldn’t keep up.

McGovern spent a lot of time in those temporary morgues, saying a prayer for each person as she helped identify bodies for funeral directors and ensure deceased people’s belongings were returned to family members.

McGovern wants to prevent others from dying. "This is my community, and I owe it to my community," she said.

Bendelier said "it’s very moving" administering the vaccine.

"The people getting the vaccine, many of them are emotional, not nervous, but emotional," she said. "They feel they’re part of history, that this was a momentous occasion. They want their picture taken and want it to be something they’ll remember forever."

They also want to show the photo to their children and parents, to show "they weren’t afraid of getting it," Bendelier said.

Polls have found that concern about side effects is the top reason many Americans are hesitant about getting a vaccine. There have been a few reports of severe allergic reactions to coronavirus vaccines, and many people report a sore arm for a day or two afterward, along with sometimes headaches or fatigue. But experts say those side effects are common with any vaccine, and severe allergic reactions are possible with any type of medication.

"The flu shot hurt me more than this did, and the shingles shot was brutal," said Newcombe, whose only side effect from the coronavirus vaccine was sensitivity in her arm for a day.

Louise Malone, 70, of Lido Beach, a retired South Nassau nurse, said vaccines are how society will return to normal."We need to get people vaccinated so this virus doesn’t have hosts to keep spreading," she said.

McGovern pointed to how massive smallpox vaccination campaigns led to the eventual eradication of a disease that had killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

"It’s important we stop this whole plague," McGovern said of COVID-19, "and this is the way we’re going to do it."

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