Medical corps ready to help with H1N1, other emergencies

As the number of diagnosed cases of the H1N1 virus increases across Kentucky, nearly every local health department has extra hands prepared to help.

Kentucky has 3,400 members in the Medical Reserve Corps, a group of medical professionals and other volunteers who are trained to step up in a medical emergency.

"We are going to need a lot of people to help" with the mass immunizations that are in the works, said April Thomas, public health coordinator with the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department. "These volunteers are going to be very, very important."

The Kentucky corps has the distinction of being the only one in the country to have been activated twice in the last year, said Rebecca Gillis, the state's branch manager for public health preparedness.

Volunteers staffed an emergency medical shelter in Louisville to handle about 1,500 evacuees when Hurricane Gustav blew through Louisiana in 2008, and they helped local health department staffs during last winter's ice storm.

The state's first Medical Reserve Corps was founded in Woodford County in 2003. The statewide corps was founded in 2007, and 118 health departments are involved. Volunteers undergo background checks, go through training and are issued identification cards so they can be called into action quickly.

About half of the corps' members are licensed medical professionals who will be directly involved in patient care. The other volunteers help behind the scenes with logistics, such as registration, parking and making sure supplies are delivered. Volunteers are offered levels of training, but most complete a six-hour course offered in two-hour blocks.

Going through the training "helped me feel equipped to help in an emergency," volunteer Janie Leech said. As a doctoral student in public health, she was interested in being involved in emergency response, she said. The corps training helped her feel more confident about jumping into the fray.

"It gives you a good starting point about how to help," Leech said.

Being involved with the corps has inspired Arleen Johnson to get her family more prepared to survive an emergency.

"I have my emergency supplies in place," said Johnson, who became interested in the corps through her work as director of the Ohio Valley Appalachian Regional Geriatric Education Center.

Plus, she said, she likes being able to help on her timetable.

"The lovely thing about being in the Medical Reserve Corps is that you can volunteer your time when you have the ability to do so," she said. "That sort of flexibility is one of the real strengths of the program."

The program continues to expand, Gillis said. "Our goal is to have way more volunteers that we could ever use."

Knowing that a trained group is in the wings "makes all the difference in the world," she said.