Cassandra Scott, a fourth-year student at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, was supposed to graduate in mid-May, but Tufts bumped up commencement to April 24.
“This is certainly not how I expected to finish medical school,” said Scott, 26, who is from Westchester County in New York.
At this point in the semester, Tufts is usually hosting a series of celebrations, dances and dinners. Those events have been canceled. Instead, Scott and more than 200 other medical students at Tufts are hunkering down, preparing — physically and mentally — to graduate in the middle of a global pandemic.
“We’re probably going to start our residencies either during or right after the peak of the infections in the country,” Scott said. “I don’t know if that’s really hit me yet.”
That grim reality is just beginning to set in for more than 700 fourth-year medical school students here in Massachusetts. They could soon find themselves working in hospitals operating at — or beyond — their capacities, just as new doctors are needed as reinforcements.
As hospitals and community health centers brace for a surge of COVID-19 patients, Tufts, Boston University, Harvard and the University of Massachusetts are all graduating medical school students like Scott at least a month early. In hard-hit New York City, Columbia and New York University medical schools are also fast-tracking their grads.
Those who choose to could volunteer for service and the state would issue them ninety-day limited licenses.
In Worcester on Tuesday, UMass Medical hosted a virtual but intimate commencement ceremony through Zoom and Facebook. On their screens, wearing white coats, the freshly-minted doctors raised their hands and took turns reading an oath written by their classmates.
“We aspire to be brave in the face of uncertainty and vulnerability,” they vowed in their oath as new physicians. The graduating class composed it.
Governor Charlie Baker addressed the 135 graduates.
“I just want to say how much we appreciate here in Massachusetts your willingness to step up, and we will do all we can to support you in your tasks as you venture out into this very different world than the one I anticipate you thought you’d be entering into,” Baker said via video link.
At times, Baker sounded like he was sending them into battle. “
If we stay in it and we commit to one another, I absolutely believe we can come out the other side stronger,” he said.
Before the ceremony, Chancellor Michael Collins told WGBH News these graduates are well-equipped to serve.
“It’s really a wonderful example of how in a difficult time, people can come together, do the commonsense thing and be sure that we can have many new doctors to treat patients should a surge in patients occur,” said Collins, who is a doctor.
If a number of healthcare workers have to go into quarantine, the medical board in Massachusetts has also eased rules for online credentialing.
Collins said he doesn’t think the state is watering down its standards in response to the coronavirus crisis.
“Everyone who goes into a graduate medical education program is well-supervised in a time-honored tradition of apprenticeship, where there’s increasing levels of responsibility,” he said.
Last month, Scott found out her residency will involve attending to patients at her home institution — Tufts Medical Center.
Scott thinks the state made a good decision giving new grads the chance to help in whatever way they can.
“It didn’t mean that we were being forced into the hospitals earlier than we otherwise would have been,” she said. “It means that we now have the opportunity to work where we’re needed.”
Some doctors battling COVID-19 are scrounging for supplies, pleading for protective equipment and working long hours. Others are writing their wills because health care workers are more likely to contract the virus than the average person.
While Scott and her husband, Gregor, self-isolate at home in Boston, she said waiting to hear whether she’ll be needed in the fight makes her anxious.
“It’s frightening, for sure, and I don’t think that anybody really knows quite what we’re walking into,” she said.
Still, Scott said the nightmare situation calls for all hands to the medical frontlines.