BOSSTON — Nurse practitioners have been temporarily cleared to see patients without a doctor's supervision as the state maneuvers to fill a shortage of medical personnel dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

An order issued Friday allows state-certified nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, midwives and psychiatric nurse specialists with at least two years of supervised practice to give physicals, prescribe medicine and perform other functions more independently from physicians.

The changes are temporary, and the expanded scope of nurse practitioners expires after the state of emergency is lifted.

"The escalating COVID-19 public health emergency will continue to produce extraordinary demand on the commonwealth's healthcare system," Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel wrote in the order, which was approved Friday by the state Public Health Council.

"Addressing this exceptional demand will require a degree of flexibility and responsiveness, in the staffing of medical facilities that certain regular limitations on scope-of-practice do not permit," she wrote.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders told reporters at a briefing Friday there are more than 13,600 nurse practitioners in the state who could be enlisted in the virus response.

The changes are backed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, a union that represents 23,000 nurses and health care workers.

The Massachusetts Medical Society, which has opposed previous efforts to expand nurse practitioners' duties, also supports the move. The group, which represents physicians, cites the need for more medical personnel to deal with the outbreak.

On Thursday, the state Senate approved a similar measure, but the bill faced an uncertain path in the House of Representatives. Some House leaders questioned whether it was necessary, suggesting that the governor should make the temporary changes by executive order.

Baker has filed similar legislation in the past to permanently remove restrictions on nurse practitioners, but the proposals have faced opposition and languished in legislative committees.

Nurse practitioners generally must have a master's degree, advanced training and pass a state exam in order to be licensed. They can prescribe medicine, perform diagnostics and consult patients, but under current law they must be supervised by a physician.

Stephanie Ahmed, legislative policy director for the Massachusetts Coalition of Nurse Practitioners, said the state's lifting of the exemptions "means more resources on the front lines and access to health care for patients at a time when it is needed most."

"As Massachusetts -- and the world -- continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to utilize all available resources and skilled providers," she said.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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