As coronavirus pandemic continues to surge across the country, two volunteer groups are teaming up to help. Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), sponsored by FEMA, and the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), organized by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, are working together to tackle a range of health needs.
Some partnerships are new and formed during the pandemic, while others have existed for years.
The CERT program educates volunteers about preparing for hazards that may affect their area. It also trains members in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, search and rescue, and helping with medical needs.
MRC volunteers include medical and public health professionals, as well as other community members without healthcare backgrounds. MRC units engage these volunteers to strengthen public health, improve emergency response capabilities, and build community resiliency.
In Warren County, NJ, the MRC and CERT collaborate monthly for trainings. These include units on emergency preparedness, communicable disease, mental health, and substance abuse. Recently, they have partnered for flu vaccination clinics, COVID-19 case investigation, contact tracing, and testing.
"Our members have a wealth of knowledge and really serve as leaders in their communities,” says Courtney Sartain, the county’s public health epidemiologist, who coordinates the work. "Warren County is quite rural, and there are times that people can feel isolated. Our MRC and CERT Volunteers do a fantastic job sharing information and resources with those in their communities and making sure that they are up to date on the latest information from the public health and public safety sectors.”
The CERT and MRC teams in Salem County, NJ, about 150 miles south, also train together monthly, currently via email and Zoom. They partner to do COVID-19 testing. CERT volunteers set up and take down the site and direct traffic, while MRC members do the swabbing for the test. Members of both teams will be "heavily relied upon” to staff upcoming COVID-19 vaccination sites, says Heather Byrne, the MRC coordinator.
"There are many parts to disaster response, and both teams together are able to meet the full spectrum of needs for response operations,” she says.
Halfway across the country, the North Iowa CERT/MRC has been operating for about a decade. Members have assisted in setting up and providing logistics for a drive-through COVID-19 testing site. They have also helped with contact tracing, and in the Emergency Operations Center. The public health department has requested the team assist at vaccination clinics, if needed.
"Our team is highly respected by our community and is included in all disaster planning efforts, says Steve O’Neil, the Cerro Gordo County emergency management coordinator. "The benefits are a more diverse team of individuals, more opportunities for varied training, and more opportunities to assist in the community.”
In Lake County, IL, north of Chicago, the MRC and CERT began Points of Distribution (POD) training together several years ago. They also teamed up to assist a veterans’ and family services organization with a 13-mile walk to bring attention to suicide rates among military veterans. While that walk didn’t take place this year, the MRC-CERT team operated a drive-through flu shot clinic as preparation for upcoming COVID-19 vaccinations.
Volunteers from the Franklin County, OH CERT and MRC collaborated for the first time in late 2020 to run a flu vaccination clinic. They recently signed a memorandum of understanding for future work, in which the MRC will move from Columbus-area public health agencies to the county’s emergency management agency. The pandemic helped spur the collaboration, according to Chris Williams, CERT program manager.
"It is clear that we are all in this together as [this is] a worldwide crisis. All hands need to be on deck, so it was clear that all volunteer programs needed to be activated to perform medical and non-medical roles,” he says. "Ultimately, it is about saving lives and doing the greatest good for the greatest number in the shortest amount of time.”
Becoming a citizen responder and joining a local CERT is a great way to stay involved and connected with your community. FEMA works hand in hand with CERTs across the country to offer tools, resources, and training curriculum that allow volunteers to safely and effectively strengthen their communities.
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This article first appeared in the monthly Individual and Community Preparedness Newsletter. Subscribe here.