Faced with a growing number of COVID-19 cases, the county has put out a call for volunteers to join the Mercer County Medical Reserve Corps, a group that has been created to assist during times of crisis.
In the wake of September 11, the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General, established the MRC as a demonstration project, whose role is to identify, train and track volunteers who can strengthen local public health and serve if another human-made or natural disaster occurred.
MRC volunteer and East Windsor resident Al Grupper explains the government’s motivation: “When the World Trade Center fell, they had volunteers show up, but there was no management or structure. MRC has a chain of command and a mission.”
“We don’t self-mobilize; we are called out for an emergency,” Grupper says. “If Stephanie [Mendelsohn, public health nurse and coordinator of the MRC] says ‘Come,’ we have to make sure our family is safe first, then we can go.”
Mendelsohn, a Pennington resident, has been running from meeting to meeting and teleconference to teleconference, as the coronavirus continues to spread in the county.
She says the MRC has already surveyed its volunteers to see if they would be available to staff a county hotline (to help handle the multitude of calls arriving at each municipality’s health department) and to do phone surveillance to check whether people who had been in contact with individuals with COVID-19 have any fever.
“This is just the beginning stages; we want as many volunteers as we can get,” Mendelsohn says. “We have 359 volunteers, but with something like this coronavirus, not everyone is going to come, because they are worried or have someone at home who is sick or are a doctor or nurse working overtime.”
Potential volunteers include healthcare professionals and students in the healthcare professions, as well as nonmedical personnel to serve as administrators, clerks, receptionists, or translators, for situations like sheltering or sorting out people in triage where some people may not understand English.
To join the MRC, first go to njlmn.njlincs.net and create an NJLMN account by clicking on the “Create Account” link. Once you have created an NJLMN account, click on “My Account” (located under the blue bar) and then click on “Become an MRC Volunteer” and complete the MRC application. Then click on “Submit” at the bottom of the page.
Mendelsohn became a public health nurse for Mercer County about 13 years ago and was asked to be the MRC coordinator after its creation.
“MRC is here for public health emergencies like this,” she says, referring to the COVID-19 virus. A specific motivation for MRC’s creation, she says, was fear of another anthrax threat.
“If we had to open a POD (point of distribution) to be able to hand out prophylactic medications to the general public, we would need hundreds and hundreds of volunteers,” Mendelsohn says.
The Mercer County Division of Public Health has plans in place for many types of emergencies, Mendelsohn explains, and MRC volunteers are invited to help out when they enact these plans as if they were real emergencies.
“We have plans for a site, who would staff it and how it would work,” she says. “We have to exercise it to make sure it works, and sometimes we find we have to tweak it a little bit.” Grupper has also participated in a sheltering exercise at the CURE Insurance Arena, an active shooter exercise in Hunterdon County, and some plane disaster exercises at the Trenton-Mercer Airport, where people would need to be triaged before being sent to a medical facility.
During non-emergencies, MRC volunteers help sign in people at health fairs and rabies clinics and staff tables providing information on emergency preparedness, tick-borne diseases, flu and flu vaccines.
“There is such a need for public health information, and to be able to have people who can answer questions and even hand it out is such a big service,” Mendelsohn says, noting that local health departments have limited staff.
The Mercer County MRC provides its volunteers with eight different trainings of two to three hours each, and on March 17 did one on the coronavirus. Volunteers also have the chance to participate in emergency preparedness exercises and or teach in their areas of expertise.
Grupper came to MRC via a friend who brought him to a shelter management class offered jointly at the Dempster Fire Training Center by MRC and the American Red Cross. The class taught him how to manage an emergency shelter for people who are not able to stay in their homes. He decided to go ahead and join the MRC because he had lots of administrative experience, some of it in a medical setting.
During Hurricane Sandy, Grupper had a chance to use some of the skills he had developed by running a comfort station on a shift in Western Mercer County and also helping at Trenton’s Sovereign Bank Arena when people from Atlantic City were sheltered there before being moved to Rutgers University.
“It was chaos,” he recalls. “A whole bunch of people that didn’t want to be there. We were separating them and trying to keep them calm until we knew what was the next step.”
“I look at us not as first responders, but as one-and-a-half responders. In case of a disaster or an emergency, the first responders are going to be overloaded; in many places we are there to back them up. I look at us as a staff multiplier,” Grupper says.
Grupper’s focus at MRC today is on personal and family preparations for a disaster or emergency, for example, what provisions you would need to shelter in place for two weeks or more. “I am prepared to teach a class in the larger community if required,” he says.
For Andrea Webb, a registered nurse from East Windsor, her introduction to MRC came via a piece of mail whose envelope sported the words, “Do you want to be a local hero?” After reading inside about the MRC, she realized this was something she had always wanted to do as different disasters hit our country.
“I’ve always wanted to volunteer as a registered nurse, put things in order, pitch in in an emergency, but unless you belong to an organization, you can’t just go to the site of an emergency and pitch in. I really felt as though I needed to give back to the community, and this was a perfect match,” Webb says.
“Everybody is there for the same thing—they want to volunteer and give of themselves, and different people have different niches they love,” Webb says. Dog lovers might volunteer at a rabies clinic, and long-term volunteers might lead trainings because they enjoy interacting with other volunteers.
Webb and her husband, who is legally blind and not a medical professional, became volunteers two years ago. They’ve done a lot of training, and in an emergency she expects that her husband might answer phones at a telephone bank, whereas she might be assigned to take vital signs and blood pressure, administer medications, and talk to people in crisis.
Princeton resident Dr. Charles McHugh, who is board certified in emergency medicine, with a sub-concentration in hyperbaric medicine, a treatment for burns, thinks he likely heard about the MRC about a decade ago from one of the paramedics who regularly visited his emergency room.
Because one of his fields of specialty and instruction in the military was CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive) materials, a required module for MRC volunteers, Mendelsohn asked him to teach this class once or twice a year.
A few years ago the chief of police and sheriff requested that McHugh come out when an envelope received at Princeton’s town hall looked suspicious and triggered an emergency response (although it turned out to be benign).
He has also been the standby medic on the scene where MRC help had been requested at large gatherings. So far he has just had to do a little first aid. “Fortunately, except for a few Band-Aids, I haven’t had to do anything drastic,” McHugh says.
Mendelsohn is a native of Union, where her mother was a beautician and her father, an immigrant from Ukraine, was a cabinetmaker. A first generation college student, Mendelsohn remembers wanting to be a nurse since she was a little girl, because she always liked helping people.
After moving to Pennington in 1995, her first job was at the Hopewell Township Health Department, and in 2005 she moved to the Mercer County Division of Public Health. She says she loves being a public health nurse, going out in the community and trying to educate people to prevent diseases like hypertension and diabetes and to break the cycle of communicable diseases like coronaviruses.
Grupper grew up in Schenectady, New York, where his father was a retail merchant with his own business, and his mother an administrator in public welfare. He moved to East Windsor from Fort Monmouth in 1966 to work for RCA.
He was part of the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college, where he studied business and joined the military in 1948, spending two years in active duty in Germany. When he returned to the States, he continued in the Army Reserve, working in civil affairs, and as a civilian was a contract manager, who did budgeting, costs and scheduling for aerospace, construction and research projects.
Webb moved around quite a bit as a youngster because her father was in the military. Born in Wiltshire, England, she also lived in Hawaii, Kentucky, Ohio, and New York, but has been in New Jersey since the late 1970s. Webb worked for Mobil Oil for 17 years in mid-management, selling fuel for ships and airlines; for an insurance company; in a hospital intensive care unit; in the Vroom Building, a maximum security psychiatric hospital in Trenton; and as an administrator for an assisted living in Tinton Falls and a medical daycare in Princeton.
McHugh was born and raised in Princeton, where his mother taught second grade for 30-something years. His father was a carpenter. Now retired from hospital work, McHugh has a small private practice and spends five days a month in San Antonio, TX, teaching for the army, where he is a retired colonel.
Looking to the current health crisis around the coronavirus, Webb says, “People are in a panic right now. Things are happening all over the place, and information and instructions are changing from minute to minute. A catastrophe like this is one of the reasons I joined the MRC, so I could go out into the community and still protect myself.”
Volunteering for the Mercer MRC, she says, is not only a wonderful opportunity to do things for the common good, but it also helps the underserved populations by teaching them how to avoid communicable diseases.”
That’s why she’s trying to recruit other people, including certified nursing assistants.
“We need every pair of hands we can get,” Webb said.