After a new strain of the H1N1 influenza virus, also known as the swine flu, spread across the United States in 2009, a new H1N1 vaccine became available and demand was high. That flu was already sickening many people, and it ultimately would sicken tens of thousands of Mainers and result in the deaths of 21. In Bangor, over the course of three days, more than 18,000 flu vaccines were administered to crowds of anxious area residents at the old Bangor Civic Center. Similar events were held in large and small communities across the state.
In order to service the many people seeking the vaccine, volunteers stepped up to help staff flu clinics around the state, including nurses injecting the vaccine, clerical staff helping people fill out their paperwork and the friendly folks circulating on the floor, keeping people relaxed and orderly as they awaited their turn to roll up their sleeves.
According to Dr. Dora Anne Mills, who served as director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention from 1996 through 2011, the volunteer workforce that mustered during the H1N1 outbreak was key to mounting an effective response to the public health crisis. And the reason it worked as well as it did, she said, is because most of the volunteers were already registered on Maine Responds, a statewide registry of medical professionals and others who are willing and qualified to serve in the event of a public health emergency.
“Maine Responds creates a database of professionals whose credentials have been checked and vetted,” she said.
When the Maine CDC needed nurses who were trained in administering vaccines, people who knew how to set up a large-scale clinic or mental health professionals who could calm a jittery public, the registry provided contact information for that workforce.
Mills, a physician who is the vice-president for clinical affairs at the University of New England in Biddeford, said the Maine Responds registry is a good opportunity for retired health professionals to stay connected to their chosen fields.
“Retired people are a fabulous resource,” she said.
Younger professionals still in the workforce may not be able to leave their jobs and family responsibilities to serve in an emergency, she noted, but retirement-age people typically have greater flexibility as well as deep expertise and experience.
In addition, she said, “The reason people go into health care is to help others. When we see an acute situation where people are suffering, we want to help.”
That impulse doesn’t disappear when doctors, nurses and other health professionals retire, she said, and Maine Responds can keep people connected to their passion for helping.
Established in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other large-scale disasters, Maine Responds is part of a national campaign to build and deploy an organized volunteer workforce to emergency settings, including weather-related disasters, disease outbreaks, prolonged power outages and other events. The Emergency System for Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals, or ESAR-VHP, is a public health emergency program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In Maine, it is run through the state Department of Health and Human Services, which would not provide information to the Bangor Daily News or comment on the program for this story.
According to Kathy Knight, director of the Northeastern Maine Regional Resource Center in Brewer, the Maine Responds registry is integral to the activities of the Northeastern Maine Medical Reserve Corps, an all-volunteer team of about 60 professionals who train regularly to respond to disasters and emergencies in eight of Maine’s 16 counties. A second Medical Reserve Corps is active in Cumberland County and serves the lower half of the state.
Training is critical, Knight said, so volunteer teams know how to work together, both within their own membership and with other disaster responders, including hospitals, police, EMT groups and others. Trainings include “tabletop” exercises, where teams work through a theoretical disaster, and on-the-ground drills that simulate an actual disaster.
Martha Morrison is a 74-year-old former hospital administrator from Newfield who is registered with Maine Responds and serves with the Cumberland County Medical Reserve Corps. It’s important that would-be volunteers get pre-credentialed, she said, “so folks don’t come out of the woodwork and cause more commotion than value” during an emergency.
The Cumberland County Medical Reserve Corps trains to set up emergency shelters, dispense mass vaccines and staff overflow hospital beds in the event that area hospitals don’t have the physical space or staff capacity to care for disaster victims as well as their usual patient load.
“My job is to see if people coming into the shelters need things like walkers or mechanical beds, and to help them chase down the medicines they need,” Morrison said.
Morrison, who is retired but stays active in a number of health-related volunteer organizations, said serving with the Medical Reserve Corps keeps her connected with the public health community and makes good use of her professional background in health care administration.
“This is a wonderful thing for retired people to do,” she said. Plus, because she’s on the registry, “if I’m needed, they already know I’m a good guy.”