By B.L. Wilson
The face of beleaguered health care workers and nurses in crowded hospital wards decked in protective clothing has become a stock image from the frontlines of the pandemic—an image that can evoke discomforting emotions for nursing instructors, a feeling of not being where they should be.
“If I did nothing it would feel weird,” said George Washington University School of Nursing clinical instructor Amanda Nicklas, a graduate assistant in the Pathways Project.
“I don’t work in a hospital, so I don’t have a direct connection to health care in that way,” she said. “But being trained as a nurse you want to help.”
Last fall, Ms. Nicklas, a registered nurse since 2005, offered her services to the Loudon County Health Department in Northern Virginia. She cleaned voting booths to make it safer for people to exercise their civic duty during the November elections as a volunteer with the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC).
Now, a couple of times a week in half-day shifts, she vaccinates older people who come to a warehouse in Sterling, Va., for the shots.
Loudon County’s Department of Health has 100 staff members serving a population of more than 400,000. During the current public health crisis, Francis Rath, coordinator of Loudon County’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), said more than 1,700 members of the MRC have become “the primary foot soldiers of the health department. MRC members are doing almost all the vaccination and almost all the non-vaccine support.”
The Medical Reserve Corps is a national creation that came to be after the 9/11 terrorism attacks when health and medical professionals and others rushed to help but found that they were just as likely to get in the way and cause confusion since there was no way to be sure who they were or their expertise.
The MRC, which operates in hundreds of communities around the country, became a way to organize people who want to step up when communities are struck by natural disasters and emergencies. Sometimes, as is the case in Loudon County, it can mean lending a hand at health fairs and immunization campaigns.
“I have always been somebody who wanted to help out when I can,” Ms. Nicklas said. “I’m a Navy veteran, so I’ve given myself to my country for three years. So it is hard for me to see a need and not be able to help.
“One reason I signed up is I have a skill set that allows me to do things that not every single volunteer can do…giving a vaccine is something that I’ve been trained for and have experience doing.”
To become a member of the MRC is a process that includes background checks, certification of credentials and licenses, orientation and training. Once placed on a list, volunteers can sign up for available shifts that are posted weekly.
Over a recent weekend, Linda Cassar, a clinical assistant professor at GW Nursing, volunteered on her first two shifts, administering about 30 vaccines each shift. In Virginia patients are vaccinated by appointment only. Volunteers are given masks, shields, gloves and other protective equipment.
"It's very quick," she said. "There are not huge lines where people are exposed to each other for extended periods of time."
Dr. Cassar urged others to volunteers if they have time.
“They definitely need more medical people to help,” she said. “They need all kinds of volunteers for registration and logistics. It is very well run and very well organized. It made volunteering a pleasure. If people are looking for a way to contribute, this might be an option for them.”
Assistant professor Gretchen Wiersma, director of clinical education for GW Nursing’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, said she read about members of her profession attending those sick and dying from COVID-19 and the sheer emotional and physical toll it is taking on them. “They are on the frontline in the battle against COVID where a ‘war’ is taking place to save lives,” Dr. Wiersma said. “Unfortunately, COVID is winning, much too often.”
As a prior Army Nurse Corps officer, she is familiar with frontline and battlefield scenarios. In her current role as a nurse educator, she felt the need to enter into this frontline battle against COVID by joining the Medical Reserve Corps.
Her experience as a volunteer helps her to recognize that she is “preparing nurses to handle a new environment, with all the precautions amongst other things,” she said.
Her volunteer work has brought different opportunities. At the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Wiersma answered the Loudoun County Department of Health hotlines. “There's a lot of information out there and a lot of uncertainty around things,” she said. “People would call and say, ‘My friend just tested positive for COVID. What do I do? Where can I get the COVID test?' Keeping our patient population informed was very important,” she said.
From there, Dr. Wiersma moved to contact tracing—talking to people who tested positive for the virus to find out who they had been in contact with so they could get to people to quickly quarantine and slow the spread of the virus.
Her most recent volunteer work has been immunizing those in her community. She now emphasizes to her students the importance of understanding that immunization is not just about “what the body does... but being able to educate the public who might be fearful of getting immunized that it is for the community and society to protect everybody.”
Associate professor Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, a nurse practitioner and the director of infant research at GW’s Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute, is a volunteer with the D.C. Medical Reserve Corps.
On fellowship currently at the National Academy of Medicine for a year, she joined MRC last November out of a commitment to social justice. “The idea of social justice has been embedded in my practice and my life for a long time,” she said, “and so to the extent that I am able to give some of my time and skill to public health needs of Washington, I am doing so.
“As a nurse educator and a volunteer, my goal is to make sure everyone has access to the care they need,” she said. “Right now in this pandemic, a way of doing that is making sure that people get tested when they want and at points that are accessible.”
As a volunteer, Dr. Darcy-Mahoney has helped with COVID-19 testing in the District.
She said she hopes the pandemic has brought to the attention of the larger university community how important the role of nursing is in health care
“If there ever was a time to realize the power, flexibility and robust training of nurses across the life span, now is that time,” she said.