Medical Reserve Corps fills in when health crisis strikes

News-DemocratOctober 6, 2013 


— Dr. Marcia Custer had been retired for years when the H1N1 virus struck the metro-east hard, so she rolled up her sleeves and went to work.

Custer was one of hundreds of volunteers in the Madison County Medical Reserve Corps, a group established in November 2005 to create a quick-response team of medical volunteers in cases of natural disasters and disease outbreaks.

Organized by the Madison County Health Department, spokesman Amy Yeager said the idea originated after an overwhelming number of medical professionals showed up to volunteer after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. "When something happens and you show up spontaneously, there's no way to check credentials and training," Yeager said.

So counties began developing medical reserve corps, groups of volunteers including medical professionals and ordinary citizens, who are trained to respond to mass casualty events and disease outbreaks.

Currently there are 246 volunteers in Madison County's corps, of which 43 are medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and first responders. The other volunteers are ordinary citizens. There are actually more volunteers currently active than they've had in previous years, but coordinators would like to see more people join the corps.

"During a public health emergency, we've found that each medical person we have needs four to five supporting team members," said coordinator Cathy Paone. "We're looking for people to do all sorts of tasks, like restocking supplies, clerical duties, interpreters, security, phone banks ... We need people with all kinds of skills."

St. Clair County's medical reserve corps is even newer: launched in 2009, it has approximately 50 volunteers. Also activated during H1N1, director Barbara Whitaker said they definitely need more people.

"We need both medical and nonmedical personnel," Whitaker said. "During a disaster, we'll need everyone, not just a certain subgroup."

For Custer, it was a chance to keep using her public health background years after her retirement. She was part of the corps when it was activated for the H1N1 outbreak several years ago, setting up temporary clinics throughout the county.

"It was an incredible experience because the agencies we worked with really responded," she said. "It ran like a clock ... It was incredible how fast it was set up."

The H1N1 clinics were primarily to get the vaccination out as quickly as possible to the most people. It was the perfect example of the need for more than just medical professionals, Custer said.

"Giving the vaccine was the easy part," she said. "The hard part was running the clinic."

For example, some patients didn't speak English, so translators were needed. Counselors and social workers were on hand to offer their assistance. And people were needed to take medical histories, sort paperwork, organize lines of waiting patients, even provide security.

In the last five years, Madison County's medical reserve corps has grown from 162 people to 237. Volunteers are required to attend one two-hour orientation session, and then are encouraged to attend additional classes if they wish. They should be in good health, Paone said, because they could be called on to work a 12-hour shift.

"We want to make sure our volunteers are fully prepared to step up and help us prevent and treat disease," Paone said.

And it may not be a jumped-up version of the flu next time. Disaster drills range from quick response to a tornado to an anthrax trial run, or any other situation that would require a large number of people to receive medical treatment quickly, Custer said. "There are all kinds of disasters that could happen where the corps would have to be activated," she said.

Whitaker said they try to hold a training session once a month on subjects ranging from public health practices and special emergency services to emergency preparedness at home. They recommend their volunteers take the national training courses which are mostly online, but the health department frequently takes those courses and turns them into face-to-face sessions, Whitaker said.

The St. Clair County corps has an orientation every quarter. Their next session will be at 6 p.m. Oct. 17 at the St. Clair County Emergency Operations Center at 110 W. Washington St., Belleville. For more information, call Whitaker at 825-4455.

Madison County held a training session for 10 more volunteers last week, toward their goal of 400 volunteers. The next training session will be in January.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at or 239-2507.

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