Immediate Impact of Volunteers in the COVID-19 Response 

I have spent more than 25 years working in local public health for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Health Officer Association (MHOA), where I oversee an organization with 600+ members, including staff from 300 of the 351 health departments in the state. 

For much of this time, I have advocated, with my colleagues, for more resources for local public health. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we knew that it could overwhelm our health departments, which is why it was so gratifying to see hundreds of volunteers from the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC) support our staff across the state. In less than six months, the APHVC has become an integral part of the COVID-19 response and overall work of local health in MA.

The APHVC was organized by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and several academic institutions, in coordination with MHOA. Over the last several weeks, stories from APHVC volunteers have appeared on JPHMP Direct. We have heard about the experience of a contact tracer, a town-wide senior wellness check program, and a success story of collaboration across jurisdictions.

In this concluding post to the series on the APHVC, I am presenting feedback from my colleagues in local public health from around Massachusetts about the important and supportive work of the volunteers.

In Somerville, just outside of Boston, thirty volunteers were deployed to work with the Health and Human Services Department of the City. When asked about the work of the APHVC, Doug Kress, its director said, “I want to thank you and the volunteer corps who continue to provide a valuable service to our community. This group of dedicated volunteers and their leaders were able to step in and assist our community, giving our staff the capacity to keep our community safe and informed. Somerville was able to utilize the volunteers, beyond contract tracing, with test result reporting, education, and referrals in multiple languages. I think one of the largest benefits of the Volunteer Corps is their knowledge and understanding of public health. Many of the volunteers were able to adapt their learning to real-time, real-life experience.”

In Bedford, a small town 15 miles northwest of Boston, Heidi Porter, the Director of Health and Human Services where there have been nine APHVC volunteers working, said that “We engaged with the APHVC early in the COVID epidemic as we recognized the need and benefit for regular risk communication, yet like all LBOHs had little-to-no time to prepare materials and infographics. Our volunteer leader and the rest of the group were so responsive, and our materials were quickly shared with other communities and vice versa. The relationship was so beneficial that as our initial wave of response died down a bit, we were able to utilize the expertise of the APHVC for generation of outreach materials for our other/usual BOH programming – vaping prevention, mental health programming, tick and mosquito bite prevention, etc. At the Bedford BOH, we’ve always had great experiences with the PH student interns and volunteers we’ve worked with over the years, but this volunteer corps served us tremendously well and were so responsive in a time where information turned on a dime.”

A team of seventeen APHVC volunteers continues to work with the lead town of Uxbridge and several other Central MA communities. Kristin Black, the Director of Health for the Town of Uxbridge stated, “As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and local health departments in MA remain underfunded and understaffed, the APHVC will continue to play a critical role in the work of our local health departments.  We hope that some of the volunteers learning about the work of local health will want to join us and help to move local health forward in MA.”

Additionally, the APHVC has been working with communities on drive-thru flu clinic plan templates as well as developing infographics, supply lists, and other tools for health departments and their many duties.  

The APHVC team approach and its enthusiasm, creativity, and dedication will continue to be an asset to local health with its many responsibilities in the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. The support, as my colleagues stated, has been invaluable. The APHVC volunteers have truly learned firsthand what “boots on the ground” local public health work is in MA. With an aging local public health workforce, local health will need these well-qualified public health volunteers to lead this important work. This APHVC local public health partnership is a great step in assuring that moving forward there will be a qualified and dedicated public health workforce.

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Author Profile

Dawn Carmen Sibor
Dawn Carmen Sibor has a BA in Elementary Education and a Master’s Degree in Counseling. Dawn has worked in the field of public health for more than 25 years. Dawn currently works for the Massachusetts Health Officers Association as its Executive Director. She serves as the liaison to the Academic Health Department and works closely with the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC).

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