Leaders at the Vermont Department of Health are taking steps to find the staff needed to continue offering vaccine clinics as new case rates have continued to be high this week.

On Friday, the health department’s online COVID dashboard listed 505 new cases of the respiratory disease identified in Vermont. The state’s highest one-day record of new cases was set on Thursday with 591 cases.

Kelly Dougherty, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said the Agency of Human Services, through employees like Adam Sancic, field director for Rutland and Bennington counties for AHS, had been getting the word out about the need for volunteers who can staff the clinics.

Sancic last week sent an email to the email chain used by Project VISION members to ask for volunteers.

“They stepped up to say, ‘Hey, we can spread the word in our communities,’” Dougherty said, who added the main office of AHS sent out a notice to all state employees.

Members of Gov. Phil Scott’s administration host a weekly press conference on COVID and the pandemic in Vermont. This week, the information they shared included a request for volunteers for the medical reserve corps.

Under the health department, the volunteer members of the medical reserve corps (MRC) supplement public health and emergency responses. The agency is part of the national MRC network which was created by the federal government after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in the U.S.

But Dougherty said that resource wasn’t as readily available when clinics providing booster shots and vaccinations for younger Vermonters began to be scheduled.

“I think the one thing that hit us was, we had been relying a lot through this response on medical reserve corps volunteers and once we rolled out all these additional clinics, once the younger kids became eligible, we assumed that we would have the same response from the volunteers as we had had in the past, and I think people are just tired. So we didn’t get as robust as a response but thanks to the response of people like Adam and our other AHS partners and others in state government, we’ve been able to keep it together,” she said.

Dougherty said other leaders at the health department believe the scramble for volunteers will be temporary. She said parents are eager to get their kids vaccinated but said this had happened with previous age bands as vaccines became available.

“We’ve had these kinds of peaks and valleys throughout the response, and we’re just in a temporary peak right now. We’ll get through it,” she said.

Clinics are scheduled partially by the availability of vaccine and partially by the need in the state and the effort to make opportunities available to everyone in Vermont.

While Dougherty said she’s aware that some of the clinics for kids, 5 to 11, or adolescents, 12 to 17, are filling up soon after they’re announced, things will “slow down and become a little bit more manageable.”

Dougherty said she doesn’t believe any of the recent vaccination clinics have had to be canceled or postponed because of staffing shortages and she said she is hopeful that volunteers will continue to come forward during the current surge of interest.

According to Dougherty, there are two “buckets of staff” at the clinics, the vaccinators, or “clinical folks,” who give the patients a shot and need to be licensed, and the others who perform a variety of roles like signing patients in, collecting paperwork and managing the flow through the clinic.

The latter group do not need to be medical professionals, but will get training from the leaders of the clinic so they understand what they will be doing to help.

“The one thing I can say that those staff would need to have is good customer service skills,” she said.

Although the search for volunteers can be challenging right now, Dougherty said she’s heard from those who have put in time in recent clinics, especially those vaccinating younger Vermonters, that they find the effort very rewarding because parents are so grateful and the kids are cute, she said.

Dougherty acknowledged that while the volunteers can put in as much or as little time as they would like, the situation has been “taxing” for the professionals who staff the clinics.

“They’ve been putting in 150% for the last year and a half plus, which is one reason that we seek volunteers so that we can spell people and give them a break and also not have the clinics so understaffed that it puts undue strain on the providers we’re working with. We’re trying to be realistic with respect to how much we can do, right? So balance the demand of vaccine appointments with how much resources we have and not trying to stress that resource too much. It’s definitely a balancing act,” she said.

Not all areas in Vermont have presented the same response to the need of a pending clinic. Dougherty said health department staff had to “dig deep” to find enough people to handle some of the need in the Springfield area and there are still some needs to be met in Bennington and Newport.

“I would say it’s a potential problem everywhere but we have seen some hot spots like in Springfield,” said Dougherty who said she’s also heard of some need in places like Barre and Burlington.

Potential volunteers can reach out though the website at oncallforvt.org that is used by the medical reserve corps.

patrick.mcardle

@rutlandherald.com

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