Putting shots in arms, nurse volunteers are backbone of Delaware mass vaccination events

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Medical Reserve Corps members work with the National Guard and state public health employees in giving vaccinations at Delaware's mass events, like this one at Dover International Speedway. (Courtesy of Mary Kampman)

Medical Reserve Corps members work with the National Guard and state public health employees in giving vaccinations at Delaware's mass events, like this one at Dover International Speedway. (Courtesy of Mary Kampman)

Carol Browne has a full-time job as a visiting registered nurse. But since December, whenever the call came to volunteer to administer COVID-19 vaccinations all across Delaware, the 53-year-old woman never hesitated.

Mary Kampman is also a working nurse. But twice she has driven 90 minutes each way from her home in Selbyville to put shots in arms during mass vaccination events at Dover International Speedway.

Browne and Kampman are members of the Delaware Medical Reserve Corps, a group of about 3,600 medical and non-medical volunteers whose collective efforts are a key reason why Delaware can inoculate thousands of people at a single location in one day.

Carol Browne (second from left) with other Medical Reserve Corps members. Brown has given shots during at least a dozen events. (Courtesy of Carol Browne)

Delaware’s big dosing events are staffed by dozens of paid members of the state Division of Public Health, National Guard and Department of Transportation.

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But when drivers pull up to the large canvas tents to get their shots, chances are it’s a nurse volunteer wielding the needle. Some are retired but many are volunteering during their time off from nursing jobs at hospitals, long-term care facilities, doctor’s office and other settings.

Fellow reserve corps members also organize and keep track of the doses, process paperwork, input data and monitor recipients after their shot, among other duties. About 50 reservists attend each state event.

All serve without pay. For their efforts, they receive a boxed lunch and the gratitude of state leaders.

“The goodwill of the volunteers is absolutely incredible,” said Elle Hammond, a public health planner who oversees the corps in conjunction with the University of Delaware. “There are a lot of people that could be getting paid quite a bit of money to be doing this.”

‘Couldn’t run these events without the volunteers’

Since its inception 15 years ago, members have performed tasks such as helping with flu clinics and public health education outreach. Last year they set up a potential shelter after tornadoes spawned by Tropical Storm Isaias struck parts of New Castle County.

But their main mission is preparing and responding to large-scale public health emergencies, of which none has been bigger or more devastating than the pandemic. So volunteering at the mass coronavirus vaccination events is an unprecedented mobilization, Hammond told WHYY.

The state “recognizes that they couldn’t run these events without the volunteers. And some of them have been extremely challenging,” she said.

Hammond recalled one weekend over the winter.

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“It was cold, below freezing, like the vaccine was cold, the computers were cold and they were willing to stand out there and help people for hours on end,’’ Hammond said. “And they still come back and help us now.”

A.J. Schall, who oversees the vaccinations as director of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, says the state could “absolutely not” conduct vaccinations on such a large scale without the volunteer corps.

“You could say it’s Disaster Management 101,” Schall said. “We always say it starts at local and ends local. And whether it’s a house fire where the community rallies around somebody or something like this where we have to vaccinate over 700,000 people, the state can only do so much. The counties can only do so much. The federal government can only do so much.”

Browne, who lives in Smyrna, says she’s lost track of the number of events she’s worked at, but says it’s at least a dozen.

“Oh my goodness,’’ said Browne, who is also a U.S. Army reservist. “I have done events in the Wilmington area, in Dover area, in Delaware City. I have done hundreds and hundreds of vaccines since we started.”

Browne says it’s her duty as a citizen.

Medical Reserve Corps volunteers assist vaccine recipients at the Chase Center in Wilmington. (Division of Public Health)

“I just really wanted to be able to give something back,” she said. “I feel like I have so much. And when I say that I don’t mean financial, but I’m healthy and I want to be able to give, to reach out to our local communities. I know that a lot of people want the vaccine and I want to be able to do my part.”

Kampman has worked two events in Dover, and says she’s just a cog in what she calls the “production” line . Her reward, besides the camaraderie of staff and volunteers in the tent, is seeing the relief on vaccine recipient’s faces.

“Everybody seems so grateful just to get their shots. I mean, it’s just amazing.”

Mary Kampman said her reward is seeing the gratitude on the faces of the people she inoculates. (Courtesy of Mary Kampman)

Kampman could give shots through her paid job, but said she would rather do her part by volunteering to make the public safer.

“One of my neighbors got pretty sick with COVID,’’ she said. “You really feel bad for the people who are getting it. And the fact that we can help prevent it is wonderful.”

Hammond says she’s working with Gov. John Carney’s office to get special recognition for these critical volunteers.

“Every time I send out an invitation that says, ‘hey, we need people on such and such a date,’ I get dozens of responses with a minute sometimes,’’ Hammond said.

“It is just phenomenal. When you look at some of the people, they come back again and again. They have just knocked it out of the water.”

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