A person wearing a pair of glasses, a mask and medical scrubs.
Dawit Ayalew, a fourth-year medical student at the VCU School of Medicine, volunteered at the East Henrico Recreation Center with the Henrico and Richmond City Medical Reserves Corps in mid-May. (Courtesy photo)

Students strengthen community’s COVID-19 response with contact tracing, testing site assistance

VCU health sciences students are volunteering with the Virginia Department of Health’s Medical Reserve Corps.

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Grace Lin has been working the COVID-19 call center at the Chesterfield Health District, which serves Chesterfield and Powhatan counties and Colonial Heights, as part of a volunteer opportunity with the Virginia Department of Health Medical Reserve Corps. 

Lin, a fourth-year medical student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, has been providing information to people about testing sites and guidelines. “Now we have people asking questions about reopening guidelines,” said Lin, who volunteers at the center one day a week. “It’s interesting to see the shift in questions.”

She is one of more than 350 VCU students, alumni and faculty volunteering with the Medical Reserve Corps, a group of volunteers who support the community in the event of a public health emergency. In addition to helping the Medical Reserve Corps with staffing and outreach efforts, Lin and her classmates are assisting with contact tracing and data collection.

Having a year of clinical rotations under her belt has given Lin a deeper understanding of risk factors and a better understanding of clinical symptoms.

“People are calling and telling me about their health, and I can use my reflective listening skills. Sometimes they just need reassurance that they are doing the right things,” she said. “We encourage them to continue best practices.” 

‘All hands on deck’

After talking with front-line workers, Lin now has a better perspective on some of the challenges people are facing.

“It’s eye-opening and humbling to hear where people are coming from,” she said.

Lin believes this is a good time for medical students to get involved in the community. “It’s important to understand the concerns of the community as well as what is going on in our local community,” she said. “When we return to the hospital, and once we become doctors in the future, it will be important to have that experience.”

Volunteering is the best way to make an impact and to also be working, said fourth-year medical student Matt Moser. He is also volunteering with the Medical Reserve Corps and has enjoyed talking with other providers who have been volunteering. 

“Everyone is in the same position and helping out,” he said. “VCU wants us to get involved in as many things as we can, and this is an extension of that. I was impressed by how many people were volunteering with the medical corps. When people’s lives are disrupted, they want to help. Everyone realizes we need all hands on deck.”

It’s important to understand the concerns of the community as well as what is going on in our local community.

When the medical school shifted away from clinical placements in line with national educational guidelines this spring, students “started reaching out to see what they could do,” said Nicole Deiorio, M.D., the School of Medicine’s associate dean for student affairs.

“They wanted to do meaningful work, keep busy and use their skills,” Deiorio said.

Alvin Chang, a fourth-year medical student and president of Medical Student Government, helps make sure the student body knows of volunteer opportunities in the community.

“We had more than 100 students in the School of Medicine sign up to help out [with the VDH],” he said. “We have a very active student body in general.”

As part of his work with the Medical Reserve Corps, Chang recently helped post fliers on doors and in mailboxes in selected neighborhoods to let residents know testing was available in their area. He enjoyed getting to know his fellow team members, two of whom were also affiliated with VCU.

“We all felt incredibly accomplished in the end, and I am super grateful to have such an enthusiastic and fun group to work with,” he said. “Also, shout-outs to Henrico police for all of their help with this and making sure that we were safe throughout this process.”

A person wearing a mask and seated at a classroom desk uses a laptop.
Medical Student Government President and fourth-year medical student Alvin Chang has coordinated with volunteers from within the VCU School of Medicine to boost efforts to partner with the Virginia Department of Health Medical Reserve Corps. (Courtesy photo)

Partnering with the Virginia Department of Health

VCU and the state health department have worked together for more than a decade. The federal government established the Medical Reserve Corps following 9/11 when health care professionals wanted to help, but there wasn’t a process in place to mobilize volunteers. Today, those volunteers help with health emergencies and daily public health issues such as the opioid epidemic.

“With COVID-19, we have our volunteers focused on point of testing for communities where people don’t have accessibility to health care, or go to the free clinic, and also at long-term care facilities,” said Jennifer Freeland, state volunteer coordinator in the Office of Emergency Preparedness at the state health department. “They have been crucial in enabling us to do that.

“I never underestimate the willingness of a volunteer to help. I am constantly blown away by them.”

Virginia Department of Health currently has 1,064 approved volunteers in the Richmond area.

“We are getting ready to launch a bigger effort to recruit students,” Freeland said, adding that students can register where they are staying and then transfer to the Richmond area when they return to VCU. “They can see public health in their community and what the rural system looks like in comparison to the city. It’s a great learning opportunity.”

Getting out in the community 

Fourth-year medical student Dawit Ayalew helped with COVID-19 community testing at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center and was honored to be among the volunteers, he said.

“There are few things that truly make me feel [as] alive and engaged with those around me as being of help to my community during times of crisis. I was representing VCU School of Medicine, and I was proud that I had the opportunity to showcase not just my medical knowledge but also my growth in organizational skills and communication,” he said. “Events of service like these where I, local social workers, nurses, physicians and community organizers all worked toward a common goal are special.” 

Being in the School of Medicine has given him a sense of responsibility for community service.

“It’s great that we were presented with the opportunity to be involved in this,” Ayalew said. “It helps us improve on patient care and understand our roles as physicians and our broader roles in community care.”

The VCU students are continuing a long tradition of volunteerism in partnership with the Medical Reserve Corps, said Peter Buckley, M.D., interim CEO of VCU Health System, interim senior vice president of VCU Health Sciences and dean of the School of Medicine.

“We are proud of their commitment to serving our community,” Buckley said.

I was impressed by how many people were volunteering with the medical corps. When people’s lives are disrupted, they want to help. Everyone realizes we need all hands on deck.

Volunteering with the medical corps isn’t the first volunteer experience for fourth-year medical student Lauren Powell.

“Prior to this, I volunteered with the Mattaponi clinic,” she said, referring to the Mattaponi Healing Eagle Clinic, which serves a Native American population in King William County. “I knew I wanted to do something else for patients without insurance.”

Kierstin Reid began volunteering with the medical corps when many rotations were postponed in the School of Pharmacy. “I wanted to help and I plan to continue doing it as much as I can during the summer,” said Reid, a rising fourth-year student. 

Reid has been helping with contact tracing, collecting data and other pertinent information such as age, ethnicity and health issues. “They may have conditions that would have made them get a worse case of the virus. We provide them with resources such as Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] guidelines and the number for the [Virginia Department of Health] hotline where they can call and get tested.”

Reid was nervous about calling people and informing them that they had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

“In reality, most people already knew,” she said. “They were very appreciative that VDH was contacting them. One of our first questions is, are you OK today?”

The experience has given her more of an appreciation for volunteering as a means to help people and provide them with needed information.

“It’s another way we can reach out to patients and make sure they are doing OK,” she said.