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Medical Reserve Corps volunteers 'unsung heroes' of the pandemic

When Kris Magnussen of Ledge Light Health District needed volunteers for COVID-19 vaccination clinics, she sent out SignUpGenius links at random times, and something happened that she thought was hysterical: Prospective volunteers were upset to miss out, so they set up group texts to inform one another as soon as slots became available.

These volunteers are part of the health district's Medical Reserve Corps — many of them retired physicians, nurses and EMTs or part-time medical personnel, but also nonmedically trained people performing key roles with IT support and directing traffic. The MRC is a national network of volunteers in about 800 community-based units across the country.

Magnussen said Ledge Light has more than 350 volunteers now, with a core group of about 150. She said they have contributed more than 5,500 volunteer hours during the pandemic, and she cited one person who has volunteered more than 400 hours.

They're "the unsung heroes in this whole pandemic," Ledge Light director Steve Mansfield said. These days, he said Ledge Light is happy to get double digits of people seeking vaccinations at one of its clinics, but volunteers still come.

Edna Johnson of Quaker Hill, and husband and wife Bruce Carlson and Patty Schurr of Groton, sat under a tent in the parking lot of the New London Community Meal Center on Thursday afternoon.

Johnson said she has been volunteering since about 2014, after meeting Magnussen at a Ledge Light program. She previously taught nursing at the University of Connecticut, retiring in 2001.

Schurr, a nurse practitioner like Johnson, "got involved when the pandemic was happening and feeling there was something I could give back." Before the pandemic, she said, it was "a very rare experience where somebody would skip up to you to get a shot."

Carlson doesn't have a medical background but volunteered as a greeter. He said he also volunteers at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London and Mystic Seaport Museum, and Schurr and Johnson found out they both volunteered at York Correctional Institution in East Lyme.

At the mass vaccination clinics, the volunteers, wearing blue vests, far outnumbered Ledge Light staff, wearing red vests. MRC volunteers not only staffed vaccine clinics but also helped with COVID-19 testing, and volunteered with food pantries and Whalers Helping Whalers, a group of chefs and others who have provided hundreds of free prepared meals to families.

East Lyme resident Dr. Ethan Weiner, a rheumatologist who spent almost 20 years working at Pfizer, said he started off doing contact tracing last spring, which he said was stressful. He later began volunteering at vaccine clinics, where he found he could make a big difference quickly. His background in medical development and drug safety made him an informal subject matter expert and put him in a good position to answer questions.

Uncas Health District also has a Medical Reserve Corps. Lebanon resident Sandy Belisle, a registered nurse and an EMT with the Lebanon Volunteer Fire Department, got involved after Uncas director Patrick McCormack mentioned on an emergency management Zoom call that he would be looking for nurses to volunteer at clinics.

"It was very rewarding," Belisle said. "I wanted to do my fair share, or what I could, to get beyond this pandemic. We all have stories about how our lives had been affected. We all wanted to see our children or travel."

Dr. Stuart Deglin of Norwich, a cardiologist who retired in early 2020, got involved in the MRC around 2017. He said his wife, Judi, had been involved with the organization for ages. During the pandemic, he volunteered at the vaccine clinic at the Rose City Senior Center, splitting his time between administering shots and working the computers, and went with public health nurses to vaccinate the homebound.

"There were just multiple episodes of people that came in and they were either just pumped up that they could (get vaccinated), or people that were just in tears that this year of being afraid to talk to people was finally getting over for them," Deglin said. He added, "It was just heartwarming and really quite astounding."

e.moser@theday.com

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