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How A Massive Volunteer Army Is Helping Vaccinate Kansas City Against COVID-19

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Volunteer Sheri Edwards stands near a set of questions she must ask visitors during their intake at the Wyandotte County COVID-19 vaccination facility inside the former Kmart on State Avenue.

Retired Hallmark employees, university faculty members and plastic surgeons are some of the medical and non-medical volunteers who make up the Medical Reserve Corps of Kansas City.

Sharon White-Lewis says she’s always been the type of person to “run into the fire.” In March of 2020, that meant calling the state board of nursing to ask how she could help. The board directed her to the Medical Reserve Corps of Greater Kansas City.

White-Lewis is the dean of nursing at Rasmussen University in Overland Park. The Medical Reserve Corps did need help and quickly promoted her to unit section chief, a volunteer position that oversees volunteer deployment, education, and the organization’s budget for the nine-county area it serves.

A year ago, only about 15 of the group's 60 volunteers were actively helping. Now, she says, the organization has 1200 volunteers — and it’s still growing.

“We had a mass vaccination down at Bartle Hall in the grand ballroom, and we did 823. I think if we’d had more volunteers, we could have vaccinated about 2000 that day,” White-Lewis says in a noisy, out-of-business Kmart in Kansas City, Kansas.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Sharon White-Lewis, the unit section chief for the MRCKC, talks about the role of volunteers at the Wyandotte County COVID-19 vaccination facility at the former Kmart on State Avenue.

But that number also depends on vaccine availability.

Bob Bennett is the vaccine operations director for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. He oversees the old Kmart site on Stave Avenue not far from the Legends outlet mall.

Bennett says that since December, his group has administered about 26,000 doses at two sites, the old Kmart and a Best Buy on Parallel Parkway. A third site is planned to open soon, further increasing capacity.

“I’d be able to do 5000 a day, so 25,000 per week, if I had unlimited vaccine, which I don’t have,” Bennett says.

Still, the more medical and nonmedical volunteers, the better, so that when more doses are available, mass vaccinations can be frequent all over the metro.

The federal government developed the national MRC in 2001 in response to the attack on 9/11, and the local chapter started in 2008. Volunteers can deploy to aid any organization around Kansas City.

White-Lewis says that when the Medical Reserve Corps is not responding to a disaster or health crisis, it leads community medical education and disaster and pandemic preparation.

“We would mimic tornadoes and earthquakes and floods and pandemics and things like that and test our processes,” White-Lewis says.

Education and preparation don't take nearly as many people as the pandemic has required.

"What really, really is important is that people realize that staying at their home is really good to protect themselves," White-Lewis says, "but getting out in the community and helping us fight this disease is what it's all about."

Retired Hallmark employee Sheri Edwards and her husband signed up about a month ago. She says, "I think it's just we all want to get back to normal. So, what can I do if I have the time and energy to get back to normal? And this is it."

The MRC has many nonmedical positions to fill. Edwards gathers information from patients who come in and “keeps the clipboard going,” she says. Others sit with people in the recovery area after the shot, make phone calls and help with the flow of traffic inside and outside.

White-Lewis says all of those roles are just as essential as the medical professionals who actually administer the vaccines. She needs more people of every skill level and professional background, but she also says it can be a little tricky to get doctors and nurses to volunteer right now.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Regina Nouhan, a retired plastic surgeon, talks about her volunteer efforts at the Wyandotte County COVID-19 vaccination facility inside the former Kmart on State Avenue.

In addition to still being in high demand in their workplaces, she says that some agencies will pay up to $100 per hour for travel nursing; the Medical Reserve Corps is asking people to work out of the kindness of their hearts.

Retired plastic surgeon Regina Nouhan is glad to do that.

Nouhan, who serves on KCUR’s community advisory board, says that volunteering is her way of giving back to her community.

“This is what our ideal society is like,” Nouhan says. “The generosity of spirit that I see here is just amazing to me. To have a need that is presented in our society and to have people answer the call as rapidly as they have, that to me is what’s most impressive and inspiring.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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