ALLENTOWN, Pa.-- A mercury spill. A virus outbreak. Hurricane flooding. The bird flu. Terrorist attacks.
Envision something worse.
That s what some Bethlehem health officials have been thinking about over the past year, and now they re seeking medical workers and others who can help if the worst does come. This month, the city called for volunteers to staff its new Medical Reserve Corps, an army of specialized professionals to help in cases of natural disasters and emergencies.
They re looking for doctors, nurses, social workers, veterinarians, funeral directors, pharmacists and people with 16 other types of expertise.
We re a small staff here, serving 73,000 people in Bethlehem alone, said Kelly Berk, the coordinator for the city s Medical Reserve Corps and a nurse with the Bethlehem Health Bureau. If the hospitals are overflowing with patients as a result of a pandemic, we don t have the manpower here to do things like preventative care, vaccinations.
The Medical Reserve Corps is part of the civilian Citizen Corps, a volunteer network President Bush announced in 2002. The call was in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks. Many physicians, paramedics and other professionals from all over the country responded to the disaster, but there was no coordinated way to verify their qualifications and dispatch them to where they were needed most, according to reports.
A recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute said that disaster planning is still sporadic and disconnected. Governments have the responsibility to respond to such disasters, but the people providing the services are generally from the private sector -- physicians and other emergency professionals. Hospitals and public health workers rarely work together and others, such as primary care physicians, are often not included, the report says.
The main point is that there has been lots of progress, but there are still significant needs to be addressed, said George P. Taylor, PricewaterhouseCoopers manager director.
The serious problem, Taylor said, is that public health staff across the nation is seriously understaffed.
That s where organizations like the Medical Reserve Corps are helping out. News reports across the country are crediting communities who have set up Medical Reserve Corps. One report singles out San Diego s Medical Reserve Corps for its response to the wildfires that ravaged the region in October.
Today, 717 Medical Reserve Corps have been formed across the country, 15 of them in Pennsylvania. Bucks County formed a corps in 2005 and used volunteers for some immunization clinics. Allentown s Medical Reserve Corps, which was coordinated through the Sacred Heart Hospital Foundation in 2003 and since transferred to the Allentown Health Bureau, has done various flu clinics and handed out bottled water during an emergency preparedness campaign.
I hope this is contagious and other communities start Medical Reserve Corps, said Vicki Kistler, director of the Allentown Health Bureau.
She said the volunteers are all trained in the same command structure so that they could blend in easily if called outside the city to a major disaster, whether it s in Bethlehem or New York City.
Kistler and Tony Hanna, Bethlehem director of community and economic development, said it s possible that those volunteers could one day become a regional reserve corps, especially as talks of creating a bicounty health department progress.
This is the type of program that should be developed from a regional approach, Hanna said.
The types of projects that volunteers work on when there is no emergency depend on the corps and how active the volunteer wants to be.
Berk said she envisions Bethlehem s corps as having two sets of volunteers: active and limited. Active members would be called on for events such as a flu clinic and emergencies, but a limited volunteer would only be called during an emergency.
She said the city needs non-medical volunteers for support, such as assisting patients with forms and other administrative tasks. Volunteers would need to undergo an orientation and take a special course. Other programs would be offered and there may be a background check. Bethlehem has received $15,000 in grants for the medical reserve unit.
MEDICAL RESERVE CORPS
Bethlehem health officials are looking for volunteers to staff the new Medical Reserve Corps, a group aimed at helping the city respond to emergency situations. Here are the types of people being sought: