Delco’s Medical Reserve Corps steps up to ease the burden on health care workers

Volunteers from the Delaware County Medical Reserve Corps stand outside the Crozer Emergency Room, where they are needed to help the hospital cope with a flood of COVID-19 patients. They are (from left) Ken Barton, Marlynn Orlando, Georg Strey, Nancy Niemiec, and Dennis Daye.(Emma Lee/WHYY)

Volunteers from the Delaware County Medical Reserve Corps stand outside the Crozer Emergency Room, where they are needed to help the hospital cope with a flood of COVID-19 patients. They are (from left) Ken Barton, Marlynn Orlando, Georg Strey, Nancy Niemiec, and Dennis Daye.(Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Georg Strey used to be a nurse and EMT in Germany, before coming to the United States five years ago to work as an engineer. But he always missed the old days of tossing on his scrubs, feeling his heart start to pump as he prepared to save people’s lives.

Then one day, he came across an enticing opportunity.

“I was watching the news, and I’ve seen a message asking for some kind of volunteers,” he said. “And when I saw it, I was immediately struck by it, and said, ‘Yes, this is definitely something for me.’”

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What Strey saw was an ad for the Delaware County Medical Reserve Corps, made up of both medical and non-medical volunteers whose mission it is to improve emergency preparedness and assist in protecting the residents of Delaware County during times of major emergency.

Throughout the pandemic, the decade-old group has volunteered in a multitude of ways, including at testing and vaccination sites. But now, it’s been called on for what members consider their tallest task yet: assisting short-staffed hospitals overwhelmed by COVID patients.

Seeing the need for his medical skillset, Strey joined the Medical Reserve Corps, or MRC. He said he understands the pressure of being a nurse, and wanted to help any way he could.

“We are, for example, picking up medications from the pharmacy. We’re just bringing water to the patients … restocking gloves, medical supplies,” he said. “I’m talking to the patients, talking the nurses, to the staff so they see, ‘Yes, there’s somebody who cares.’”

In what officials have called a perfect storm, hospitals in Delaware County have been overwhelmed by severe staff shortages, on top of a record number of COVID-19 patients.

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This month, some of the MRC’s 1,700 MRC volunteers began supporting local hospitals — Mercy Fitzgerald, Crozer-Chester, Taylor, and Delaware County Memorial — to ease the burden put on health care personnel.

Last month, 100 Crozer Health staff members were out with COVID, and about 140 patients in the health system are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

Most of the work MRC volunteers in hospitals do involves assisting nurses, providing patient comfort, and sanitizing medical equipment, which allows the medical staff to provide better care for their patients.

Dennis Daye, a onetime physician assistant turned MRC volunteer coordinator, said many different people have stepped up to join the corps.

“We have doctors … nurses, we have physician assistants, pharmacists … EMTs. We also have school bus drivers [and] executives,” Daye said, adding that there’s never been more demand for the MRC’s services.

Daye said the role of the volunteers, quite simply, is to make health care workers’ jobs easier by handling auxiliary duties that take up valuable time that could be spent treating patients.

“It takes about six non-medical to support a medical individual,” Daye said. “We’re looking for medical individuals, but we’re also looking for non-medical at this time.”

One of those non-medical volunteers is Marlynn Orlando.

She retired in the summer after working for a nonprofit and felt listless with nothing to do — until she saw an ad on Facebook from the Delaware County Citizens Corps, which coordinates the Medical Reserve Corps.

“And that’s when I said, ‘You know what? This is something I can do. This is a way I can help and contribute,’” she said. “I was sitting home feeling sorry for myself, and I was like, ‘This is not how I want to spend this time during the pandemic.’”

She decided to join the corps.

“I just thought, when this is all said and done, I want to be on the side of history that said I was part of the solution,” she said. “What can I do to help?”

Delaware County is recovering from its largest COVID spike of the pandemic so far, on Jan. 7. The county’s new health department was scheduled to launch this month, but has yet to do so.

The county applied for and is now waiting to hear from the state whether it will receive one of Gov. Tom Wolf’s “strike teams,” which are part of a federally funded COVID relief program.

The teams are composed of physicians, respiratory therapists, and registered nurses, and will be deployed by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the state Department of Health to assist the state hospitals most in need.

The Wolf administration is also deploying regional support to provide more beds for the most overcrowded hospitals.

Dr. Monica Taylor, chair of the Delaware County Council, said all three hospital networks in Delco applied for them.

“Right now, we’re just in the process of waiting to hear back,” Taylor said Wednesday. “They’re limited in resources. It’s an entire state to see how many strike teams are able to deploy. We’re hoping we can at least get one to help our hospital systems.”

Dr. Monica Taylor, chair of the Delaware County Council, talks about the Medical Reserve Corps volunteers who are assisting at four Delaware County hospitals during a spike in COVID-19 cases, (Emma Lee/WHYY)

She said the county’s director of emergency services is in contact with the Wolf administration about possibly bringing one to Delaware County.

The strike teams’ regional rollout began earlier this month in Scranton and York, but it is expected to expand statewide in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, Georg Strey and the rest of the MRC volunteers will work to ease the burden  as much as they can.

“It’s most important to see that this help means there’s some kind of hope. And so everybody knows at some point it’s going to be over,” Strey said. “So now, it’s most important for people just not to give up, even when it’s hard.”

The MRC is still in need of volunteers, and you can learn more at the Delco Citizen Corps website.

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