On April 29, 2020

As new volunteers pour in, Vermont’s Medical Reserve Corps awaits marching orders

By Erin Petenko/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott made an impassioned plea for Vermonters with medical skills to volunteer to help the state’s health care system: “I am asking every Vermonter to dig deep and find a way to give more in this incredibly challenging time,” he said on March 31.

Just a few weeks later, hundreds of Vermonters have been added to the state’s main organization that handles medical volunteers, according to the Department of Health. About 280 people have joined the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), compared to their 665 members prior to the start of the crisis. Another 800 await approval via background checks.

“It’s been a tidal wave,” said Derek Pitts, the state coordinator of MRC.

But the state now predicts it has enough surge capacity to handle the peak of Covid-19 cases. And as volunteers of varying backgrounds and training levels join the Corps, local units are in a holding pattern, waiting for hospitals or state officials to direct them to where they’re needed.

Helen Wilson, head of the MRC unit for the Northeast Kingdom, is part of one such unit. The organization has had 62 new people complete the process to join the MRC, including doctors, nurse practitioners and EMTs.

The organization also needs regular people to help with coordinating the MRC response. She learned that when coordinating the local volunteers for the bird flu pandemic and had to set up large immunization centers at schools.

“It’s not just nurses, we need anyone,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done: Paperwork, getting things set up, getting things knocked down.”

MRC units are not just active during emergencies, she said.

Heather Rigney, head of an MRC unit in the Upper Valley, said the Corps has done a variety of health and non-health-related outreach in the past, including making toiletry kits for people who are homeless and staffing medical tents at road races.

Complicating the response is that many of the existing MRC volunteers are retired or older Vermonters, putting them in the high-risk category that would normally lead people to stay at home, Pitts said.

MRC is far from alone in that problem. Meals on Wheels, another volunteer-heavy organization that delivers meals to older Vermonters, is itself staffed largely by retirees who may need to step down to protect themselves.

As they accept new volunteers, local unit coordinators are considering how their mission could be adapted to fit the needs of the current crisis. Wilson said she’d be interested in seeing what agencies need help, whether that’s with first responders or even Meals on Wheels.

Rigney said while it’s still theoretical at this point, she could envision MRC volunteers being written into surge plans as a resource for the entire community.

“Maybe having MRC representation on your local homeless sheltering team perhaps, so if they ever need medical volunteer support, it’s easier to get a foot in the door,” she said.

One existing plan for MRC usage has not been needed — yet. MRC volunteers are trained to help with “Point of Distribution” plans, when the state needs to administer medicine or a vaccine to large numbers of people. Several local MRCs had training exercises for the possibility just last summer.

MRC can’t help with creating such a distribution center right now, but “if one is created that’s viable, we’ll probably see MRC involved,” Rigney said.

Wilson said in the meantime, they’ve been fielding calls from people with questions about the virus. While she’s been involved in emergency preparedness for a long time, Wilson said this crisis has been an adjustment.

“We were thinking of a hurricane or a flood,” she said. “This one really threw us a curveball.”

But her advice for this pandemic is the same as many other emergencies: Make sure you have a “go bag” in your house with medicine, chargers and other things you’d need if you had to leave quickly.

Rigney said Vermonters tend to think of emergencies in terms of winter weather phenomena. “I think now we’ve learned a lesson,” she said. “And the idea is to not let that stagnate.”

She said Vermonters should know that MRC is still accepting volunteers through its website. The state also has a volunteer portal for medical and non-medical volunteers.

“It’s not just medical people — we love people who have financial or logistics knowledge, translators, we’ve had a few chaplains or clergy,” she said. “It’s a little bit of everybody.”

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