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Boom in volunteers crucial to La Plata County vaccination effort

Medical Reserve Corps grows by hundreds to tackle COVID-19 testing, vaccines
Susan Weirather, a retired medical technologist and volunteer with the Southwest Colorado Medical Reserve Corps, fills syringes with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, during a Community Vaccination Clinic on March 5 at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In April 2020, Randy Hertzman realized he needed to help with the COVID-19 pandemic and jumped in as a volunteer in the local Medical Reserve Corps. Over the next year, almost 700 others did the same.

The Southwest Colorado Medical Reserve Corps, operated by San Juan Basin Public Health, stands ready to harness the community’s volunteer power in the face of natural and human-made disasters. That corps was about 10 people before the pandemic. Now, SJBPH is running with the program’s momentum, spotting ways it could be used to further public health awareness and prepare for any future emergencies.

“It’s been a great community effort,” said Hertzman, who has volunteered with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. “The actual work is a little tedious, but it’s definitely worth it because of the community. ... A huge majority of them are so grateful and say ‘Thank you’ as you shove a Q-tip inside their nose.”

At the time, his day job as a wilderness medicine teacher was on hold. He’d been to nursing school and was trained as an emergency medical technician.

“I wanted to get involved. I wanted to help,” he said.

The Medical Reserve Corps, housed within the federal government, launched in 2002. President George W. Bush called on all Americans to volunteer in whatever ways possible in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The attacks underscored the need for a more organized approach to using medical and health volunteers, according to the Medical Reserve Corps.

Jackson Paine, a Southwest Colorado Medical Reserve Corps volunteer, helps train other volunteers to use a software system for tracking vaccination data at the La Plata County Fairgrounds in April. (Courtesy of James Graven with San Juan Basin Public Health)

Since 2002, the national network includes corps in all 50 states and U.S. territories, totaling about 200,000 volunteers and about 800 units.

In the Southwest Colorado unit, volunteers come from an array of professions, such as physicians, dentists, journalists, teachers, nurses and retired medical workers. They span La Plata, Archuleta, San Juan and Montezuma counties, said Lori Zazzaro, SJBPH emergency manager.

“We saw a real explosion of people who wanted to help with vaccinations in general,” Zazzaro said, whether it was administering the vaccines or other duties.

There has always been strong volunteerism during community emergencies, said Liane Jollon, SJBPH executive director. It takes shape as the longstanding search and rescue service, and volunteer ambulance or fire protection in rural areas.

“Communities come together,” she said.

Before the pandemic, the Medical Reserve Corps helped with large events, like a pro-cycling tour a decade ago. In 2016, the corps seemed to be ramping down, but SJBPH took over sponsorship to keep it going.

“When the 416 Fire happened, we were in the middle of a training exercise for coordinating volunteers,” Zazzaro said.

Ben Powell, a registered nurse and volunteer with the Southwest Colorado Medical Reserve Corps, administers the COVID-19 vaccine Feb. 13 to Charlene Thomas during the Greater Ignacio COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic at Ignacio Middle School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The corps, then about 10 people, helped with sheltering and evacuation efforts at Escalante Middle School.

When the pandemic hit and cases spiked locally, corps volunteers jumped into roles as community testers and contact tracers. They prepared to support the health care system, with personnel if necessary, in case there was a surge of cases, Zazzaro said.

The corps grew to 120 volunteers. Then, when vaccine doses could be distributed, its size boomed. As of April 27, the corps was 702 volunteers strong, a 6,920% increase compared with pre-pandemic levels.

“This is what happens after any type of crisis,” Jollon said. “The trick really is capturing that energy to stay involved and prepare for the next one because we never know when the next one is coming.”

The public health department is considering ways to harness the corps’ momentum. Volunteers come with such a breadth of experience, and they’re already credentialed and familiar with the SJBPH system, Zazzaro said. They could help reach underserved communities, support emergency services for large events or the health care system when needed.

“In five years – I’m really hoping there aren’t other emergencies we’d have to deploy to. I would like to see us doing annual vaccination clinics. We can do these on a much larger scale,” Zazzaro said. “We could use volunteers to help with all public health outreach.”

Heidi Zink, left, a nurse-midwife, and Mary Stengel, a retired physician, hold up a sign indicating they are ready to vaccinate the next person Jan. 23, 2021, at the Community Vaccination Clinic in the Exhibit Hall at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. Zink and Stengel are volunteers with the Southwest Colorado Medical Reserve Corps. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

SJBPH is working on a grant application to help make funding sustainable into the future, she said.

Being around the volunteers is “absolutely inspiring,” Zazzaro said.

“They dedicate their free time to help make the community a safer place,” she said. “We are leading the state in vaccination rates. The strength in our response – a lot of it is due to the dedication of our volunteers.”

Since he started volunteering, Hertzman estimated that he had tested about 1,000 people. He has never done an exact count, he said, but it is a lot.

He estimated that he has given 300 vaccine doses so far and counted 36 days volunteering at the test site as of late April.

“While we’re around, we’ll help with natural disasters,” Hertzman said. “I can’t hope that there are more disasters coming down the road that require medical assistance, but if there are, I’m sure Durango will step back up again.”


Dr. Betty Baca with the Southwest Colorado Medical Reserve Corps gives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to Donna Albright during a Community Vaccination Clinic at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)