BRISTOL, Va. — You don’t have to look far to find bright spots amid the bleak news of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristina Morris sees that light every day she goes to work.
Morris couldn’t be happier with the number of people who have stepped up to volunteer at the Southwest Virginia Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) in the past seven months. The MRC, an organization that protects Virginians’ health and promotes wellbeing, serves Washington County and Bristol, Virginia, in addition to the counties of Lee, Scott, Wise, Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Tazewell, Smyth, Bland, Wythe, Grayson and Carroll and the cities of Norton and Galax.
“Public health has obviously been on the front line since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March,” said Morris, who is unit coordinator for the Southwest Virginia Medical Reserve Corps in Bristol, Virginia, part of the Virginia Department of Health.
“But in the background is the Medical Reserve Corps — a group of volunteers who go above and beyond to serve the needs of the community.”
Morris said since March the organization has gained more than 100 new volunteers who are doing important jobs and learning new skills.
“Once Gov. Northam began mentioning the Medical Reserve Corps in his daily briefings, we saw a rise in volunteer applications,” she said.
The organization currently has 835 approved volunteers, a jump from 715 before the outbreak of the virus. According to their website, in 2019, local MRC volunteers provided 1,227 volunteer hours at a monetary value of $37,518.59.
“We have about 190 volunteers in Washington County alone,” Morris said.
“And we always need more new volunteers, especially going into flu season.”
The response to the pandemic that started in March far exceeds anything the organization has ever faced.
“We responded to the tornado in Washington County in 2011, and we’ve done quite a bit of work with the opioid crisis in the region. We’ve also helped with Drug Take Back activities.
“We’re into the seventh month of the pandemic, and we’ll continue well into 2021 when the Medical Reserve Corps will assist with giving out vaccines for COVID-19.”
Since the Southwest Virginia Medical Reserve Corps formed in 2004, the organization has served the public health community in Southwest Virginia by responding to local natural disasters, seasonal flu responses and winter weather emergencies and, if needed, statewide public health emergencies.
‘A wealth of talents’
Volunteers are not just health care professionals. Some are retirees, school teachers and community residents who just want to help.
“The volunteers have brought a wealth of talents to us,” said Morris. “There are many opportunities for volunteers without medical training. They have helped with training, rewritten policies and procedures, telephoned patients and answered phones.
“We set up a temperature station in the Washington County Community Services building in mid-March,” she said.
“Our volunteers manned that station 40 hours each week from mid-March to May. We did have medical students and retired nurses, but we also had individuals with no medical training who were willing to take temperatures and ask questions.
“The community is stepping up and helping public health in ways I never expected,” said Morris.
“They have used their own vehicles to deliver critical supplies, been ambassadors for our elections so that we can vote as safely as possible, they encourage people to wear their face masks and social distance, and they are learning skills like how to be a contact tracer.”
Volunteer efforts impact community
Some of their volunteers have done such an extraordinary job that they were hired for full-time jobs at the Medical Reserve Corps.
Volunteer work has paid off for Mollie Estes, a COVID administrative assistant at MRC.
Estes, 22, started volunteering with the organization in March just after she had graduated as a biology major from Western Kentucky University.
“After graduation, I decided I wanted to go into the medical field, and about that time, it was recommended to me that I join the Medical Reserve Corps.”
As a volunteer, she made phone calls as a way to help monitor COVID patients.
“At that time, they had more calls than they could handle,” said Estes.
Last month, Estes was offered a full-time job at the organization, taking phone calls and doing research when necessary to accurately answer their questions about COVID-19.
Eventually, she wants to become a physician.
“I really enjoy working with the Medical Reserve Corps because it’s fulfilling to know I can help people, which is why I want to go into the medical field. The people I work with are great, and the patients I am able to help on the phone are usually very thankful,” said Estes.
Volunteers are encouraged to serve their home community; however, many volunteers go beyond those expectations.
“Our volunteers look at things regionally rather than in their own backyards,” Morris said. “They’re willing to support public health needs wherever they are in the region.
“Last week, the Hospital Preparedness Coalition contacted us about a long-term care facility in Grayson County that needed IV poles,” said Morris. “There were six available poles at a hospital in Norton, and five were located in Tazewell County.”
After putting out a request to see what volunteers might be available, within 30 minutes, Morris had two volunteers who agreed to transport the supplies.
“I think that’s extremely exciting that we have volunteers with that level of commitment. They probably did something that saved a life that day, and that’s what we’re all about.”
Ann Jernigan, 66, of Abingdon was one of the volunteers who helped transport the supplies.
“It was a heartwarming experience,” she said.
As a volunteer at the reserve corps, the retired nurse is using her mental health skills to listen to patients about their COVID concerns and to help reassure them during this unsettling time.
“If I can relieve the stress of these workers and help the patients in any way, I feel like it’s been a good day.”
Southwest Virginia Medical Reserve Corps is looking for new volunteers. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact the organization at 276-274-0555. The Medical Reserve Corps is located at 15068 Lee Highway in Bristol, Virginia. Those interested can also keep up with events on their Facebook page.
Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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