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Medical Reserve Corps volunteers bolster NM pandemic response

Nurse Jenny Romero talks to a child who has just received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Expo New Mexico. Thousands of volunteers in the Medical Reserve Corps have played a critical role in New Mexico’s response to the pandemic. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Dr. Mary Van Sickle loaded up syringes, stuck needles into arms and met her fellow New Mexicans by the carload this year – all as a volunteer.

Van Sickle, a physician from Santa Fe, is among a growing number of people serving in the state’s Medical Reserve Corps, a group playing a critical role in New Mexico’s pandemic response.

The corps has grown from fewer than 2,000 members to about 7,400 since the pandemic hit, offering the state a deeper reserve of volunteers ready to help with public health emergencies and other events.

They’ve served at COVID-19 vaccine clinics, testing sites and recovery shelters. They’ve visited nursing homes, made contact-tracing calls and staffed the phone lines in the pandemic call center, serving as a complement to New Mexico’s traditional workforce.

Dr. Mary Van Sickle, a volunteer for the Medical Reserve Corps, gives a COVID-19 vaccine to Alana Walker on May 21 during a clinic at the Santa Fe County Fairgrounds. Volunteers helped administer about 500 vaccines that day.

Van Sickle, whose speciality is OB-GYN, joined the Medical Reserve Corps after reading about the demand for medical volunteers amid the pandemic. Her service has taken her to Vaughn, Española and Albuquerque, among other communities, to administer vaccines at drive-thru and in-person clinics.

It was a chance, she said, to get to know New Mexico families of all kinds, usually at the car window.

“It was so rewarding that I could be doing something that made a difference in their lives,” Van Sickle said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m sure that’s why we’re all volunteering.”

Established more than 13 years ago, the Medical Reserve Corps enlists volunteers – ranging from physicians to students – willing to supplement New Mexico’s medical workforce. Almost every state has one.

The corps includes people with medical and non-medical backgrounds. In a typical year, they might help administer flu shots, care for migrants in southern New Mexico or provide aid to people at special events, such as the annual marathon to commemorate the Bataan Death March.

But the group has never been called on so heavily as since March last year, state officials say, when the first COVID-19 cases surfaced in New Mexico.

In fact, the corps, for the first time, has paid some members for their work, such as operating shelters for people who don’t have a place to stay while recovering from COVID-19.

Bobbie MacKenzie, who heads the Medical Reserve Corps, said the group is usually an all-volunteer workforce, but some members have been paid this year given the magnitude of what they were asked to do – working directly with COVID-19 patients – and the availability of federal stimulus funds.

“This has been by far our largest and longest running” operation, MacKenzie said.

The corps has been essential at times.

Ric Traeger, a retired physical therapist from Albuquerque, worked 91 hours one week as he coordinated medical services at shelters. Throughout the pandemic, he has administered vaccine shots, watched for adverse reactions and directed foot traffic in clinics.

Working at the two COVID-19 shelters in Albuquerque – caring for people without homes, drivers passing through New Mexico and others who just didn’t have a safe place to stay – was particularly rewarding, Traeger said.

“In my heart,” he said, “I’ve always had a place for those who are maybe underserved or who are facing some disaster. That’s what started me doing this.”

Traeger has worked as both a volunteer and served in a paid position during the pandemic. He now volunteers for the corps 15 to 25 hours a week and estimates volunteers make up roughly 30% of the staff at the vaccine clinics he travels to.

MacKenzie, who manages the program, said the reserve corps is open to people of all backgrounds and can be a source of free training. The group is now deploying about 200 volunteers a week, she said.

“We feel there’s something everyone can do,” she said.

The occupations especially encouraged to register include bus drivers, bankers, firefighters and scientists, in addition to health care providers. Even professions not normally connected to emergencies – such as a someone with a background in banking or administration – can be helpful by tracking finances at an incident command center, managing donations or handling other non-medical duties, state officials said.

Van Sickle, for her part, said she volunteered at six or seven clinics altogether this year.

“I don’t know what else they’ll ask me to do,” she said.

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