The first case of the 2022 monkeypox outbreak in the U.S. was reported in May and by late August had spread across the country. As it has during other public health emergencies, the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) was quick to respond. Units from many jurisdictions are currently supporting their communities through education and vaccination. This month we profile response activities from units in Illinois, Louisiana, New York, and New Jersey.
Winnebago County MRC
The Winnebago County MRC (WCMRC) serves the approximate 240,000 residents of Winnebago County, IL which represents a diverse population of ethnicities, races, and indices of social vulnerability (SVI). Winnebago County, situated in Northern Illinois, is the 7th largest county and is comprised of urban (City of Rockford with 148,655 residents), suburban, and rural communities across 519 square miles. The County is home to three large healthcare systems and three Federally Qualified Health Center Systems. The Winnebago County MRC, coordinated by the Winnebago County Health Department (WCHD), has over 100 active volunteers, including medical and pharmacy students and nurses.
During the COVID-19 response, the unit supported a range of activities including testing, contact tracing, mask distribution, and health education and outreach. They also conducted flu clinics that served as drills for mass COVID-19 vaccination clinics. The unit supported COVID-19 vaccinations at mass vaccination clinics, mobile clinics, and in-home vaccinations.
When the first positive case of MPV (monkeypox) was diagnosed in Winnebago County, WCHD received the JYNNEOS vaccine from the Strategic National Stockpile. At the end of August, weekly vaccination clinics started. MRC volunteers supported vaccine administration, vaccine management, registration, and logistics.
“Especially coming off of the COVID-19 response, we would not have had the capacity to do MPV vaccinations without our MRC volunteers,” said Rebecca Lyons, Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness for the Winnebago County Health Department and MRC Unit Leader.
The unit has also supported two pop-up events held at a nightclub in downtown Rockford. The nightclub caters to a predominantly LGBTQ customer-base and has ties to local community groups.
While unit volunteers have been active in vaccination support previously, intradermal vaccination was new to some of the volunteers.
“The MRC volunteers are supportive of each other,” said Lyons. “The nurses serve as mentors to the medical students, helping to build their confidence.”
MRC volunteers stepped up to the plate to serve clients as an interdisciplinary team representing a variety of healthcare professions. This is a strength of the program with the potential to translate into practice in non-emergency settings.
New Orleans MRC
With about 100 active volunteers, the New Orleans MRC serves the city of New Orleans and Orleans parish. The unit assisted with testing from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and was “instrumental” in the vaccination rollout. The unit has also provided support during multiple hurricanes.
About 40 unit volunteers are now active in monkeypox response, working alongside New Orleans Department of Health staff members.
“When it first started, New Orleans was not a monkeypox hot spot, but we wanted to get ahead of it,” said Unit Leader Meredith McInturff.
In early August, the unit held a community outreach and education training for volunteers in preparation for community events. The 1.5-hour training covered how to answer tough questions and involved epidemiology and communications strategy at city and state level.
“It was a small group, but a good introduction,” said McInturff. “They practiced repeating skills to peers.”
Also in early August, the health department received vaccines ahead of Southern Decadence, an annual six-day event held in New Orleans by the gay and lesbian community during Labor Day Weekend. The event draws a local audience as well as a large tourist crowd, many of whom fit the demographic for monkeypox. The MRC set up in the Health Hub, partnering with the CDC, state health officials, the city, and the local health department to provide testing and vaccination. They also provided COVID boosters.
“All levels were working together with the MRC to meet a common goal,” said McInturff. “It was important to have this service available for free in a stigma-free, public location.”
Leading up to this event, the MRC and local health department worked with the state to provide vaccination at the Red Dress Run through the French Quarter in mid-August.
In addition to these events, the MRC supported vaccinations at local Federally Qualified Health Centers that focus on the LGBTQ population as well as walk in clinics.
“Volunteer engagement since COVID has been tough,” said McInturff. “This new mission was exciting to volunteers and drew in their involvement.”
During the clinics, MRC volunteers primarily served as vaccinators. They also assisted with set up and break down, provided community education, canvassed in neighborhoods, registered participants, and guided potential participants to the clinic local in the park.
Perhaps unique to New Orleans, community outreach has included Mardi Gras distribution with beads that include an image of the monkeypox virus on one side and a QR code to information on the back.
Preparation for vaccination clinics include a joint training with EMS, EMTs, paramedics, and volunteers.
“We’re excited to all be working together,” said McInturff.
Additional training for vaccinators includes a CDC video, just-in-time training on-site, and shadowing someone administering the vaccine.
“Our volunteers are the greatest people,” said McInturff. “The health department could not do the work it does without the volunteers’ commitment to lift up all residents.”
Albany County MRC
Prior to the pandemic, the Albany County MRC, which serves Albany County and the greater capital region in New York, supported flu clinics and did a lot of drilling to prepare for the “what ifs.”
During COVID response, volunteers supported case investigation, the call center, and vaccination efforts. The units’ volunteers have now “moved seamlessly” into monkeypox support.
“They’ve been involved since the first positive case was identified,” said Unit Leader Stephanie Notar. “The state reached out to ask us to provide vaccination to those at high risk.”
The 30-40 volunteers assisting in the response have held a variety of roles including serving as vaccinators and assisting with flow, monitoring, and medical evaluation.
“PODs are primarily staffed by MRC volunteers with a few key department of health personnel serving as managers, and providing clinical supervision, logistics, and IT support,” said Tricia Bulatao, Albany County Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Performance Management.
Almost 1,000 vaccinations have been administered so far. The health department is working with community partners who have relationships with the targeted population. Clinics have been held at the health department, in the parking lot of a local LBGTQ bar in the evening, at an HIV service provider, and at Latinx community locations.
“It’s really amazing,” said Bulatao. “The volunteers just keep turning out again and again. We appreciate the work they do and the difference it’s making.”
Monmouth County Health Department MRC
Since 2008, the Monmouth County Health Department (MCHD) MRC has served the residents of Monmouth County located along the New Jersey Shore. The unit’s 225 active members have been instrumental in aiding during Superstorm Sandy, COVID-19, and many other non-emergency health initiatives.
Throughout the pandemic, volunteers assisted with phone banks, testing, vaccine clinics and delivering food to those isolating with COVID-19. When monkeypox began spreading, volunteers immediately expressed an interest in wanting to help.
In August, the MCHD MRC began assisting the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) Health Group to help fully staff and respond to the monkeypox public health crisis.
“It has been great working the MRC volunteers to provide the monkeypox vaccine to the community,” said Tom Thees, Executive Director of the VNA of Central Jersey, Inc., located in Holmdel NJ.
The VNA Prevention Resource Network was one of New Jersey’s three initial sites established for monkeypox vaccine administration.
“It was important for us to provide as many clinics and access as the supply would allow,” said Thees. “The MRC staff volunteers facilitated our immediate response upon supply arrival and have continued to be a key ingredient in our ability to staff the large-scale clinics we have hosted.”
With almost 3,000 administrations, the teams continue to serve the community seamlessly.
“We look forward to our continued collaboration to provide important public health services to our community and we thank all the MRC volunteers that have served with us,” said Thees.