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'It's public service': U.S. nurses are coming out of retirement to administer vaccines

"After months of being quarantined, it’s exciting to be able to help," one nurse said.
Image: Retired nurse Judy Schneider
Nurse Judy Schneider gives a Covid-19 vaccination shot to a patient.UNC Medical Center

It’s a good thing retired nurse Judy Schneider kept her hospital scrubs.

Less than two years after she said farewell to her job at a North Carolina hospital, she is back in them -- and on the front lines of the pandemic -- giving people shots of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“I didn’t think anything would make me want to come back,” Schneider, who retired in 2019 after 29 years of working as a nurse at UNC REX Healthcare in Raleigh, North Carolina, told NBC News. “But then Covid happened, the vaccine rollout happened, and I realized I could help. After months of being quarantined, it’s exciting to be able to help.”

Schneider, 65, said she had planned to travel the world. But for now, she said, the world can wait.

“This is the best nursing job I’ve ever had,” she said while on a break from her post at Rex’s vaccine center, where she works some 15 hours a week. “The people coming in for the vaccines are hospital workers and they are so happy, so thrilled, to be getting it. That makes it fun.”

Across the United States, there are many more former nurses like Schneider who have put their retirement plans on hold and answered the call of service.

“It’s a historic moment,” Schneider said. “It’s public service. It’s a skill I can share.”

In a bid to speed up the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines by making sure there are enough qualified people available to administer the shots, the Department of Health and Human Services has amended the rules so that any physician or registered nurse can do so in any state or U.S. territory.

That includes health care providers whose licenses or certifications have expired within the past five years, as long as they were in good standing “prior to the date it went inactive,” according to the HHS.

“To respond to the nationwide public health emergency caused by Covid-19, the Biden administration is broadening use of the PREP Act to expand the vaccination workforce quickly with additional qualified health care professionals,” acting HHS Secretary Norris Cochran said. “As vaccine supply is made more widely available over the coming months, having additional vaccinators at the ready will help providers and state health departments meet the demand for vaccine and protect their communities more quickly.”

In Florida, where the vaccine rollout has been chaotic at times, Broward County has started enlisting retired nurses, doctors and other health care workers to help dole out doses.

“With the vaccine, we’re going into probably our biggest endeavor so far,” said Dr. Warren Sturman of the county's Medical Reserve Corps told the NBC affiliate in Miami. “Mass vaccinations for a pandemic is something that has always been on our mission statement, something we have always thought about. This is right in line with what we were planning for years, hoping to never have happened, but planning for it."

In Maryland, the TidalHealth Peninsula Regional hospital in the city of Salisbury sent out word to retired nurses that they needed help and within days "six nurses who had worked a combined 241 years immediately stepped forward to volunteer their time, administering vaccinations in five-hour shifts multiple days a week," Maryland Matters reported.

On Long Island, dozens of retired New York nurses have answered the call to help, Newsday reported.

"We’re suddenly doing something we weren’t doing previously," Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital, told the newspaper. "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."

Janice McNeilly, 67, who retired around the time the pandemic began, said she kept her nursing license up to date even though for the last 20 years she worked as a consultant based in Champaign, Illinois, who specialized in making hospitals run more efficiently.

McNeilly said the urge to get back into the scrubs had been building even before she walked into the vaccination center last week that had been set up in a Champaign hotel. She said she had spent the last few months tending to her 98-year-old mother, who died recently of dementia.

“I had my first vaccination on Wednesday and asked them if they needed more nurses,” she said in an interview.

Told that they could use all the help they can get, McNeilly said she registered with the Illinois Department of Health and is now waiting for her assignment.

She chuckled when asked if her nursing skills were rusty.

“Injections? It’s not rocket science,” she said. “What you would question is if the people giving the shots were making up the medications themselves. But those syringes are already ready and stacked on the nurses’ tables ready to go.”

Like Schneider, McNeilly said she relishes the chance to be of service.

”I think volunteering and helping your community is very important, especially now that I’m retired,” she said. “Also, I think I bring unique skills to the table.”

Tracy Runck, who retired five years ago at age 55 after working 30 years as a nurse at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, agreed.

“I don’t have the skill set to go out on the floor anymore” and work as a Covid-19 nurse, Runck, 60, said. “But I can do this and I want to do this and I feel very strongly about getting people vaccinated so we can all get through this.”

In Cincinnati, retired nurse Sandy Foglesong, 64, told the local NBC affiliate it was karma that she kept up her license two years after she hung up her scrubs.

"Why do I still have my nursing license? Why did I keep my basic life support up?" asked Foglesong, who retired two years ago from The Christ Hospital and has signed up to help CVS administer Covid-19 shots in Ohio nursing homes. "But then this came along, and maybe the universe is opening up and speaking to me."