Retired nurse Susan Fujii once helped deliver babies. Now, she’s delivering meals and nutritional guidance as she cares for some COVID-19 patients on Oahu.
In retirement after more than two decades as a public health nurse at the Department of Health, Fujii kept her license, and has been caring for some COVID-19 patients recovering in isolation. Most folks were visitors confined to their hotel rooms without a support system or relative nearby.
Fujii recalled one patient in particular, whom she had assisted without ever making physical contact.
“He was sick in his hotel room, poor thing, away from family. He at least had a balcony to sun himself in the morning which is a good idea,” she said.
Due to the mandatory 14-day quarantine for all travelers, Fujii was deployed to provide support as part of Hawaii’s Medical Reserve Corps.
Fujii and 1,370 other volunteers with the corps have been called upon to pick up a variety of tasks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 330 of them are new volunteers who registered to be involved in the COVID-19 response.
Since Hawaii health officials verified the state’s first COVID-19 infection in early March, scores of volunteers across all islands have jumped in — delivering meals and supplies, fit-testing N95 masks in preparation for drive-through testing operations and assisting the Aloha United Way’s 211 call center.
Some have helped to screen people for COVID-19 symptoms, and others have been involved by offering telehealth services within their scope of practice.
One pharmacist volunteer even assisted a Kauai distillery shift its production to making hand sanitizer.
The corps also take non-medical volunteers — niche skill sets are always welcome, whether it’s data entry and analysis or the ability to drive a forklift.
Part Of A National Network
In a state known to have a shortage of doctors, it’s helpful to have a reserve of folks vetted by the Department of Health.
“In an emergency, we are really grateful that they are willing to come back and use their skills,” said Marjorie Tayao, the state and Oahu coordinator for the corps at the Office of Public Health Preparedness. “I think our health professionals immediately knew that if it (a surge) were to happen in Hawaii we wouldn’t have enough.”
Some volunteers still have active licenses, and others no longer practice. In the past, the corps has partnered with the American Red Cross and assisted in response to natural disasters such as the Kilauea eruption and fires in Waianae. In 2009, it conducted vaccination drives for H1N1.
But there’s never been anything quite like the COVID-19 outbreak for the volunteers.
The corps is part of a national network that was created after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
At latest count, there were nearly 270 registered nurses, 90 pharmacists and 72 physicians on the Hawaii register, as well 200 other medical professionals. There are social workers, psychologists, dentists, paramedics, and even family therapists.
Those without medical backgrounds have other areas of expertise, such as law, accounting, food preparation or child care.
Tayao says the corps is looking to recruit physicians from private doctors’ offices, especially because many may have had to temporarily close because their patient numbers have dropped during the pandemic.
“If that surge goes up again, they’re going to be vital as well so we can better manage which communities and hospitals they could go to, to help,” Tayao said.
For volunteers like Dr. Arnold Serota, a retired kidney transplant surgeon, volunteering with the corps gives him a “medicine fix” even in retirement.
“When you’re in medicine for so many years it really becomes part of you like any job, but the ups and downs and stresses are so strong that it really becomes part of your life,” he said. “It’s really difficult for a lot of people in medicine to really fully retire.”
He and his wife Angela, a retired nurse, were recently deployed to survey Kauai residents to assess their preparedness for COVID-19. They went door to door and asked people if they felt prepared for the pandemic, if they had enough protective gear and how many people in their family had pre-existing illnesses that could put them at risk.
The experience gave locals a chance to ask questions, he said. The Serotas live near rural north Kauai, which has limited medical resources.
“We get called upon a lot because we’re in that geographic area,” Serota said. “We’re pretty much isolated from the rest of the state.”
Meanwhile, the curve of COVID-19 infections may be on a downward trend this month, but officials are working on a plan to deploy the corps to hospitals and clinics in case of a resurgence and more medical personnel are needed.
The corps is considering how to set up makeshift hospitals or clinics. Ultimately, it will be up to hospital administrators whether to call for help.
“We take people because we’re always planning for the worst case scenario,” said Tayao. “I’m thankful that the curve has gone down but I’m also aware it could go up again at any point and our health care system is really fragile.”