In 2002, the local health district established the first group of Medical Reserve Corps in the state, and more than 400 local volunteers have answered the call to help, either with clinical duties or completing paperwork.
(TNS) — Responding to the COVID-19 crisis has brought a lot of community partners together, but few collaborate around the kitchen table the way Andy and Allison Balmes–John do.
The two married July 5, 2019, and have spent most of their time as newlyweds focused on the global pandemic. He’s a regional coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, and she’s the spokesperson for the Rappahannock Area Health District.
Both spend most of their days working from their Stafford County home, where he contacts regional emergency coordinators, and she sends out information about COVID-19 testing sites, cases and death tolls.
The couple met while they were volunteers with FEMA Corps, a yearlong program that involved responding to disasters, so dealing with emergencies may be part of their makeup as husband and wife.
“We never would have imagined we would both be working from our house to fight a pandemic, though,” she said.
But even those who train regularly for every possible weather or manmade disaster couldn’t have predicted that a virus would devastate the world the way COVID-19 has.
“I don’t think anyone really expected this,” said 1st Lt. John Rivera, who has helped the Army and Air National Guard administer COVID-19 tests in the area. “But we’re always ready and prepared for anything.”
That planning has come in handy, along with the mentality that it takes a village to respond to the situations presented by the novel coronavirus. Throughout the Fredericksburg region, agencies that have long worked together—on drills that simulate responses to tornadoes or mass-casualty incidents caused by shooters—have put what they practiced into action.
They’ve also drawn on relationships built when things are in a “steady state, so that when you get to a disaster, you’re already friends, you’re colleagues, you’re professionals,” John said. “It’s so much easier that way. One of the things we talk about is don’t hand your business card out at a disaster. You should have already done it.”
Last week’s community testing in a parking lot near Stafford Hospital was one example of local and regional partners coming together. The local health district led the effort and had several employees on hand, including Erin Perkins, who normally inspects restaurants for a living.
“It’s a different world,” she said about her new duties since March. She’s either on the site of a community testing event or planning the next one.
Three teams from the National Guard performed the tests. The Stafford event marked the last community event in which they could provide help, so the health department is looking for other partners to fill that void.
Nine volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps directed traffic—that began lining up well before the first nasal cavity was swabbed—and placed plastic bags, containing necessary vials and patient information, on the hoods of peoples’ vehicles.
“We knew this was going to be something big, as far as all hands on deck,” said Steve Roberts of Stafford, who joined the MRC volunteers with his wife, Susan. “It’s been a great opportunity for us to come out and give back. And we sleep pretty good at the end of the day after being in the heat all day.”
Officials with Mary Washington Healthcare set up a booth, offering food and water for the workers. Others handed out information about test results along with bottles of donated hand sanitizer.
“It can’t be done without partners,” said Virgil Gray, emergency manager for Stafford County, who helped with scheduling and logistics. “Nobody has enough resources on their own, so we always have to pile them together to get it done. That’s how it works. We’re all trying to take care of one another and do the right thing.”
The health district has used lessons learned from an earlier disaster to deal with the current one, said Joe Saitta, the health district’s deputy incident commander.
Along with Dr. Donald Stern, the district’s acting director, Saitta came out of retirement to deal with the pandemic. He was the bioterrorism coordinator in 2002 when the threat of anthrax being sent through the mail weighed heavily on the region.
The district had to shift its focus from clinics and public safety campaigns to responding to health-related emergencies, Saitta said. Employees learned about forensic epidemiology or how to deal with mass fatalities, and they deployed to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina to gain experience.
Officials began to form partnerships with hospitals and first responders, local and regional emergency managers, schools and business officials. They stocked up on supplies that would be needed to conduct mass vaccinations, along with the personal protective equipment that’s become so vital.
In 2002, the local health district established the first group of Medical Reserve Corps in the state, and more than 400 local volunteers have answered the call to help, either with clinical duties or filling out paperwork. District workers also adopted an incident command system so that everyone around the table speaks the same language and works under a unified structure, Saitta said.
MRC volunteers also began helping with seasonal flu-shot clinics, an activity which has continued and provided the conceptual basis for drive-thru COVID-19 tests.
“All these improvements have helped us immensely during this outbreak,” he said. “Although put in place almost 20 years ago, each of these is used every day.”
Sharing information has been vital among members of the Rappahannock Emergency Medical Services Council because there are so many unknowns in the pandemic, said President Kevin Dillard.
The biggest is detecting the disease, because so many people either have mild symptoms or none at all. As a result, emergency workers have to treat each patient as a positive case—and wear the appropriate gear.
“We certainly never imagined running critically low or even out of supplies and not having the ability to get these items to ensure the safety of all those responding,” Dillard said.
Council members have trained together for years, and those with larger stockpiles of equipment shared with others who needed it. During virtual meetings, members discussed the best way to handle shift changes to avoid minimal exposure; how to communicate when people were quarantined; the best way to handle patients from long-term care facilities; and procedures when decontaminating ambulances.
“When one partner had an unusual situation, we could all discuss and learn from each other to ensure we were better prepared the next time something similar would come up,” Dillard said.
Partnerships and collaborations are the only way the community will get through COVID-19, just as it’s done during other crises, said the Rev. Joe Henderson of Bragg Hill Family Life Center. He’s working with the health district on community outreach and said everyone has a role to play.
“Whether it’s providing food to families, the barbershop posting signs [about community testing events] or a church ministering about the importance of wearing masks and minimizing the spread to other people or whether people come out in the field like this,” Henderson said during the testing at Stafford, “everyone’s role is critical to us being on the same page to address this crisis.”
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