Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Kateri Drinkard has had a pretty intense dose of real-life experience. 

Drinkard, who is a student in Virginia Tech’s Master of Public Health program, has volunteered at least 100 hours with the New River Health District’s COVID-19 efforts. Her jobs have included everything from calling people to report their COVID-19 test results to keeping track of paperwork at local testing sites. Most recently, Drinkard has been scheduling vaccine appointments for those who fall in the phase 1b priority group at the district’s call center.

“It’s really been the best way to put everything that I've learned in my classes in action,” said Drinkard, who eventually wants to work in public health to make health care accessible to more people. “It’s exciting scheduling appointments and knowing that the most vulnerable members of the community are going to be getting the vaccine.”

Drinkard is one of hundreds of volunteers, including many Virginia Tech students, faculty, and staff, who are part of the Medical Reserve Corps in the New River Valley.

The corps, an arm of the Virginia Department of Health, is a group of volunteers stationed throughout the commonwealth who help with public health initiatives and other needs, right alongside local health departments and districts. The corps was established nationally in 2002 as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a time when many people sought ways to volunteer in their communities.

Drinkard actually joined the corps in 2019 when she was a senior undergraduate student at Virginia Tech. Then, her volunteer tasks included handing out information to students about public health services at Gobblerfest and assisting with flu vaccination clinics.

But when the pandemic began in March, the need for volunteers like Drinkard skyrocketed. The corps has been especially important to the New River Health District at COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites. Along with administrative tasks, some volunteers with medical experience are trained to administer coronavirus tests and vaccines.

“They were critical to being able to test hundreds of people a day at a test site,” said Noelle Bissell, the district’s health director, during a Jan. 15 virtual community town hall conversation where she described the corps’ work. Now, the district’s testing sites largely are run by volunteers, while the district focuses on administering COVID-19 vaccines.

Mary Lou Legg, unit coordinator for the Southwest Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, said she can hardly keep up with the number of people who contact her daily to volunteer. Each volunteer receives a background check and additional training, depending on the area in which they will serve.

There are about 600 corps volunteers for the New River Valley, and they include numerous Virginia Tech employees and students. In fact, all students who are enrolled in Virginia Tech’s master of public health program are trained to work with the corps.

“We want them to be ready to be deployed at any time,” said Sophie Wenzel, who is assistant professor of practice and associate director of the Center for Public Health Practice and Research at Virginia Tech.

Wenzel also has been volunteering with the corps, and since early in the pandemic she has worked as a contact tracer and case investigator. Wenzel speaks Spanish, so one of her roles is to call people in the community who speak the language.

“They just love that someone is reaching out to them in their language, willing to talk, willing to answer questions, giving them prevention messages, telling them how long they need to quarantine, and how they need to isolate,” Wenzel said. “It's just been really rewarding to see how grateful they are.”

Now, Wenzel has started volunteering in a support role at local vaccination sites.

For Drinkard, taking on additional volunteer hours with the corps, which equals about two to three shifts a month, gives her the opportunity to make a difference during the pandemic.

“It can be hard to read the news or see [COVID] case numbers go up and it can make you feel sort of helpless,” she said. “Volunteering with the corps is a way for me to feel like I can do something to help.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone