By Emily Laskowski, Public Health – Seattle & King County Preparedness Division
When King County became the first epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States, members of the King County Public Health Reserve Corps (PHRC) stepped up as a key group of emergency volunteers in Public Health’s response.
Founded in 2006, the PHRC is a local branch of the national Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) program. PHRC provides an opportunity for qualified community members to pre-register with Public Health as volunteers. When emergencies including severe weather, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks strike, PHRC volunteers can be called upon to help.
Dow Constantine, King County Executive, proclaimed the week of April 17 to April 23rd, 2022 to be Public Health Reserve Corps Week. This week of appreciation aligns with National Volunteer week and is an opportunity for to celebrate the incredible role the PHRC plays in improving our collective quality of life.
We salute the more than 1,000 amazing volunteers from a wide range of medical and non-medical backgrounds who could be found in almost every area of the Public Health COVID-19 response.
Meet the Public Health Reserve Corps Volunteers
During the height of Public Health’s 2021’s pandemic response, 626 PHRC volunteers donated a heroic 23,365 hours in support of the health and well-being of King County. This equaled an economic impact of more than $1,046,488.
PHRC members used both medical and non-medical expertise to perform important duties. Members helped out at vaccine clinics, answered calls from patients in Isolation and Quarantine Facilities and handed out Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at long-term care facilities. Along with Public Health’s Health Engagement Action Resource Team, PHRC also helped to package and distribute care kits to people experiencing homelessness.
When the COVID-19 vaccine became available, PHRC members played a critical role in Public Health’s efforts to ensure compassionate care and equal access to the vaccine. PHRC supported more than 100 community-based vaccine clinics between March and December of 2021 alone.
Tyler Willis, a PHRC volunteer and self-proclaimed “pandemic nurse” admits to having to put aside his own concerns during the pandemic response.
“I fought my own fears about contracting COVID-19 to assist at testing sites and to support a long-term care facility I’d worked at as a nursing aide to support them when they most needed help,” says Willis. “It has always felt like I’m making a difference.”
We owe PHRC volunteers like Willis a great deal as they were crucial to Public Health’s ability to get the vaccine to the community while operations continued to stabilize. In February of 2021, volunteers continued to show up for vaccine efforts by assisting at Public Health’s two new high-volume vaccination sites at the ShoWare Center in Kent and the Auburn GSA complex. More than 15,000 volunteer hours were served at the mass vaccination sites alone. Ray Kusumi, a noteworthy PHRC volunteer, was crucial to ShoWare Center’s operations.
Ray Kusumi, retired forensic scientist/chemist, PHRC volunteer.
Kusumi was crucial to ShoWare Center’s operations. When asked why they volunteer: “I’ve been involved with community service since grade school – as a parent you need to model the behavior you want to see in your children.”
“Ray was a tireless organizer and helped to manage the huge inventory of supplies for a site that did over 1000 vaccinations a day. Ray was always a can-do person and while he helped behind the scenes, he helped make it possible to reach tens of thousands of South King County residents and help them to be protected and safe.” –Mark Del Beccaro, vaccination clinic supervisor.
Meet more of the volunteers who made such an amazing year possible:
Susan Ableidinger, retired dialysis nurse, 17-year veteran PHRC volunteer.
Susan (Sue) volunteered on Christmas Eve just after the vaccine first rolled out. Sue notes, “When we first gave out the vaccines – people were so excited, taking videos and clapping.” Ray Kusumi and Sue were even wearing reindeer antlers, Christmas lights, and other festive gear as they were vaccinating patients!
Jessica Calhoun, school nurse, PHRC volunteer
Jessica (Jess) was one of the first PHRC members to help in Public Health’s response to COVID-19, volunteering in the public COVID Call Center just after the first major outbreak in King County. Jess notes “There weren’t a lot of testing options available at that time, and it felt like we were working from scratch trying to give people the information they needed and keep them safe.”
Tim Gilmore, retired physician, PHRC volunteer
As a retired physician, getting to see former patients was a highlight of Tim’s time volunteering at vaccination clinics. “While volunteering I was able to see a few women whose babies I helped deliver in the past come in to get vaccinated!”
Jane Lester, retired physician, PHRC volunteer
Jane Lester has been an amazing support to all of King County throughout the pandemic. “I wanted to try volunteering in every area of COVID to see all sides of it – I enjoyed all of it, whether I was a vaccinator, greeter, answering questions, assisting at Isolation and Quarantine Facilities, or helping care for discharged patients!”
Barbara McGrath, medical anthropologist and registered nurse, PHRC volunteer
Barbara felt it was rewarding to see entire families come through the ShoWare center to receive their vaccines. “If you have an interesting career and it ends, you think ‘now what?’ and you don’t want to check out. Many people want to open another chapter and volunteering is a logical choice. Volunteering is one way to keep meaning in your life.”
Helen Moure, lawyer, PHRC volunteer
When the pandemic first started, Helen had additional free time as COVID caused her work to temporarily slow. To fill the extra hours she had to spare, she joined the PHRC to spend her time being a part of the solution. “I have time, I can contribute some good into the world outside of my own work!”
John Murphy, Emergency Medical Technician, PHRC volunteer
Throughout his career John has worked both at home and abroad in support of public health. “The last person I ended up vaccinating at ShoWare was a Yazidi refugee from a clan I had helped as a medic in Iraq, and they asked when will I return to help the villages there.”
Rebecca Talbot-Bluechel, nursing instructor, PHRC volunteer
Rebecca enjoys volunteering because it gives her the chance to give back to the community and interact with people she isn’t able to through her regular job. “Volunteering saved my sanity during the pandemic – it felt proactive instead of reactive. Moving forward against the virus was huge for me mentally to feel like we were helping people see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Please join us in thanking our amazing Public Health Reserve Corps volunteers for their support for our community throughout 2021!
Find out how you can become a PHRC volunteer.
Originally published April 18, 2022.