The huge spike in coronavirus cases across the United States has hospitals struggling to remain fully staffed. A looming national doctor shortage appears imminent, and it’s never been clearer just how important America’s frontline medical workers are.
Many of them may not be able to work here much longer. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether hundreds of thousands of young people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—among them thousands of doctors and other medical professionals—lose the protected status that allows them to temporarily live and work in the United States without fear of deportation.
The U.S. Supreme Court in November heard oral arguments on a set of cases challenging the legality of President Donald Trump’s efforts to terminate DACA, which provided temporary protection from deportation and work authorization to some 825,000 undocumented young people, including those who are studying to enter the medical field. A decision from the high court could come any day.
But the new reality of world upended by COVID-19 raises the obvious question: Why would the Trump administration deny Americans the services of this talented cadre of young people at the very moment when it needs them most?
A Center for American Progress analysis from 2017 found that roughly 27,000 DACA recipients are health care practitioners, including physicians. Their vulnerability was a problem long before the coronavirus; the Association of American Medical Colleges concluded in a study last year that the United States will see a shortage of up to nearly 122,000 physicians by 2032. Now, the global pandemic threatens to make this problem even worse. The prospect of losing DACA has long been a concern for Ali-Reza Torabi. More recently, however, the 29-year-old medical student has worried about the impact the disease will have on his community.
“A lot of people don’t really discuss how this specific outbreak affects underserved communities,” said Torabi, a native of Iran who immigrated to California when he was five years old. He now studies medicine at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine outside Chicago.
DACA recipients “are already struggling on so many levels,” he said adding that undocumented immigrants are “probably going to get hit harder than anybody else,” because of their reticence to seek out medical care, for fear that their immigration status could be discovered and they could be deported.
Indeed, many Dreamers pursuing medical careers chose the profession precisely because they or their loved ones found themselves without access to affordable medical care as a result of their undocumented status.
Of course, the shortage of medical professionals across the United States was already bound to hit the field of primary care medicine particularly hard, as baby boomer retirements accelerate and the population grows. Some of the fastest growing states are likely to be most impacted. A study by the University of California at San Francisco determined that the state faces a massive shortage of primary care doctors. The state’s Future Health Workforce Commission predicted a shortfall of 8,000 primary care practitioners in the coming decade. Similarly, Florida’s Physician Workforce Annual report, which found last year that 12.5 percent of the state’s doctors are planning to retire in the next five years, reported that one-third of its 67 counties have fewer than 10 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants.
As America prepares to combat coronavirus and other public health scourges, it’s hard to imagine that it could do better than dedicated young doctors like Luis Gutierrez, 28, a Dreamer who worked his way through his bachelor degree studies.
Gutierrez, now a second-year medical student at the University of Miami who is also pursuing a Masters’ degree in public health, wants to serve underinsured communities like the Oakland neighborhood in which he grew up. “I have an interest in emergency medicine, that’s where you help the community in its most vulnerable place,” said Gutierrez, whose undocumented family immigrated from Michoacan, Mexico when he was a young child.
Dreamers like Gutierrez reveal yet another flaw with the logic of trying to abrogate DACA: These people often fill societal roles in which there is serious need—helping the most vulnerable among us. Now, with the threat of coronavirus, everyone is learning just how necessary they are for the health and well-being of our nation.