Medical Reserve Corps invaluable to county’s vaccination efforts

Saranac Lake doctor David Johnson is seen here Wednesday, April 7 inside the gymnasium at Keene Central School, where the Essex County Health Department hosted a COVID-19 vaccine clinic. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

KEENE VALLEY — Standing in the gymnasium at Keene Central School, Dr. David Johnson readied supplies at his station at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Wednesday, April 7.

Johnson, who ran a private practice in Saranac Lake, retired in July after 34 years of caring for patients. He’s not done yet. He’s one of about 100 medical professionals who have signed up to serve as part of Essex County’s Medical Reserve Corps in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The vaccine clinic at Keene, organized by the Essex County Health Department, was his fourth as a volunteer for the MRC.

“It’s something to do that makes a difference in this scourge,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to actively do something rather than sitting and complaining about it. And I’ve got the time.”

Essex County’s MRC has been around since May 30, 2007, according to MRC coordinator James Thomsen. It’s essentially a local chapter of a larger national organization that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The MRC mobilizes medical professionals in times when there’s a public health crisis or emergency situation. Essex County’s MRC also has a special subset of its organization that specifically deals with animals, such as livestock, in times of crisis. Essex County’s MRC members include veterinarians, dentists, doctors, nurses, EMTs and even non-medical volunteers.

The MRC has been at the ready for years. In the past, its members were trained for the H1N1 pandemic and SARS epidemic. Thomsen, who has served as the MRC program coordinator since last October, said the organization’s members get together a few times a year for training.

“We’re the only county in the area that really has an active Medical Reserve Corps,” Thomsen said. “I’d love to see it expand to do more public health initiatives, working at fairs and events, and health-related events throughout the county.”

Thomsen said he’d love to see the MRC have a presence at the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon.

“Probably about a third of our volunteers are from the Lake Placid area,” he said. “We also have a number of volunteers from out of the county since other counties don’t have opportunities like this.”

Based on the typical salaries of its volunteers, the MRC has saved Essex County about $61,900, according to Thomsen. Since January, its members have logged a total of 1,627 volunteer hours.

Essex County Public Health Director Linda Beers said on Tuesday, April 6 that the county Health Department wouldn’t be able to stage the vaccine clinics it does without the MRC. The county Health Department has fewer than a dozen employees, and according to Thomsen, the number of volunteers at each clinic has ranged from 12 to 38 depending on the size of the clinic.

“The commitment of these people week after week … I’m just so grateful, really,” Beers said. “I don’t know how other counties are doing it without a strong Medical Reserve Corps.”

The coronavirus pandemic has galvanized a lot of people to join in the battle to beat back the virus through vaccinations. The number of people volunteering as part of the Essex County MRC has about doubled since last October, from 100 to 200, according to Thomsen.

For Johnson, volunteering at vaccine clinics has given him the opportunity to meet new people and connect with some of his former patients.

“It’s a nice way to spend the day,” he said. “You meet a lot of people. I see some of my old patients. That’s fun. I went to Willsboro last week, and one of my oldest patients came in to get vaccinated. That was so nice.

“I miss them. I had to sever 900 or so relationships when I retired in July, and that’s hard. They’re friends.”

Johnson said volunteering is “a nice thing to be able to do,” and it’s “not much of a sacrifice.”

“Drive and give shots, visit with people and help them choose which arm to get it in,” he said.

Johnson marveled at the technology used to create the mRNA vaccines, such as those from Pfizer and Moderna. He expressed concern about those who may choose not to get vaccinated.

“They said early on … it’s the people, not the science, that could fail to defeat this pandemic,” he said. “The battle now is the people who won’t get vaccinated.”

“I tell people jokingly … the microchip from Bill Gates doesn’t hurt at all,” Johnson said with a laugh.

Essex County’s MRC is always looking for more volunteers. Those interested in joining can visit www.co.essex.ny.us/Health/emergency-prep-response/medical-reserve-corps or call 518-873-3523 for more information.