Conversations and healthy debate about issues facing our industry and the health care system are critical to addressing some of today’s challenges and opportunities. The PhRMA blog welcomes guest contributors, including patients, stakeholders, innovators and others, to share their perspectives and point of view.
Today, we are pleased to welcome a guest article from Joanna Manning, a former Army Medical Service Corps officer, who currently works as a freelance writer covering education, community, and health topics. She lives in Washington state, where she is a volunteer with disaster relief nonprofit, Team Rubicon. In this story, she investigates how the nonprofit is innovating to respond to the pandemic and reveals how once high-risk volunteers are returning to service.
When disaster strikes, Team Rubicon volunteers rush in to be of service; standing down is not in their nature. But, when COVID-19 hit, that’s exactly what Team Rubicon volunteers – known as Greyshirts – over the age of 65 were expected to do. In March of 2020, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Team Rubicon instituted the first-of-its-kind restriction on volunteers: Greyshirts age 65 and up would not be allowed to deploy until the pandemic was over or under control. In 2020, coronavirus restrictions meant Team Rubicon missed out on the chance to deploy more than 4,000 Greyshirts, including some of Team Rubicon’s most reliable: the roughly 400 Greyshirts who typically deploy four times a year.
“A lot of those folks who are retired, who have the availability, and who have the skills, knowledge, and attributes we need are among our most important members, so there’s no doubt we saw direct impact,” said Team Rubicon Deputy Director of Field Leadership, Nick Mrzlak.
While their absence on ops has been felt acutely, no one has felt the loss more deeply than the Greyshirts themselves. Until this spring, Dr. James Orsini was one such Greyshirt. At 74, the retired dentist had deployed on multiple operations with Team Rubicon prior to the pandemic. He has been active in Team Rubicon since 2018, when he deployed to Wilmington, NC, after Hurricane Florence. He mucked houses. He got dirty. He made friends. “It was a great experience,” said Orsini, who went on to get his sawyer certification and later became a heavy equipment operator.
A U.S. Navy dentist of 38 years with a combat tour in Iraq under his belt, Orsini is accustomed to doing hard work under challenging circumstances, but he followed Team Rubicon’s COVID-19 order to stand down, despite how difficult it was. “Seeing all of your friends continue to deploy is tough,” he said. “I felt like I was missing out.”
Then came the vaccine, and soon Orsini was back in the field – and at the controls of a 22-ton excavator on an operation in Victoria County, TX, further cleaning up devastation left by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Team Rubicon had partnered with the Victoria Long Term Recovery Group to demolish several remaining homes so that new, sturdier structures could be built. “It was a lot of fun getting back to work,” Orsini said, though he did note that his team was swarmed by honeybees while they were there. No one was hurt, and everyone other than the bees appreciated Orsini’s return.
Now that he’s free to serve again, Dr. Orsini has his heart set on deploying internationally as part of a medical team with Team Rubicon, ideally doing dentistry, though he is willing to put his decade of experience as an EMT to use if dentistry isn’t in high demand.
“The work at Team Rubicon is very fulfilling. When you’re retired, you’re always looking for something to do,” he said. “I’m still pretty active, so I’m trying to pursue the more active part of helping out while I can.”
Orsini is just the beginning. As more Greyshirts over age 65 get vaccinated, Team Rubicon expects to see a major lift in the field. And, earlier this year, Team Rubicon and six veteran organizations launched the Veterans Coalition for Vaccination (VCV). The mission: To unite and mobilize a nationwide network of veterans to ensure equitable access to vaccinations for all Americans, regardless of geographic or socioeconomic limitations. Together, the VCV could deliver vaccines anywhere from the inner city to the most rural outpost. Calling veterans up to serve again could also ease the burden on health care agencies and communities attempting to vaccinate Americans.
Since February, the VCV and its veteran volunteers have provided health departments, communities, and public agencies across the U.S. with the administrative, logistical, and operational support needed to stand up and maintain vaccination sites. They have also trained health care workers to supplement hospital staff, and often bring the volunteer personnel needed to execute details from managing registrations to administering the vaccine. It’s working, too. Between the VCV and people like Orsini, veteran volunteers at Team Rubicon-supported sites have administered more than 1.6 million COVID-19 vaccinations across more than 95 cities.
Learn more about Team Rubicon’s efforts during the pandemic at: teamrubiconusa.org/vaccination.
Topics: Vaccines, Coronavirus