Mary Williamson, 75, retired from her job as a registered nurse a decade ago, but she wasn’t just going to sit around during a pandemic.
The Colorado Springs woman, who spent a career in intensive care and public health nursing, volunteers from 14 to 30 hours per week as a COVID-19 contact tracer for El Paso County Public Health.
Williamson logs into a morning Zoom meeting to find out her assignments for the day, then spends hours — socially distanced at home — making phone calls to retrace the steps of people who have tested positive for coronavirus. She talks people through the requirements of quarantine, and how to stay in the same house with their families without spreading germs.
The work comes together through the Colorado Volunteer Mobilizer, a little-known database that just got a big boost during the pandemic. The network has been around for about 15 years, and was holding steady with about 1,800 volunteers — until the coronavirus outbreak struck. Nearly 2,000 more people have registered in the past four months, everyone from nurses and doctors, to people willing to take care of pets while their owners are sick, to general helpers who will direct traffic or sort virus testing kits.
“We have had a huge increase since COVID,” said Koral O’Brien, who oversees the network for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “I think it was word of mouth. We didn’t do a lot of advertising. It just happened.”
The database — which operates by different names across the states — was born out of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Tens of thousands of volunteers poured into New York and Washington, D.C., from across the country — doctors and nurses and physician assistants offering to help. But in the chaos, there was no central way to verify whether people had the credentials they said they did. Was the guy who drove to ground zero from Colorado actually a doctor?
A federal mandate followed. Under the Emergency System for Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals, states were directed to set up databases of volunteers. Colorado’s database includes not only medical licenses and credentials, but background checks.
The Colorado Volunteer Mobilizer has 148 administrators throughout the state, including local health departments but also animal welfare organizations and other nonprofits. When there is a need for volunteers, an administrator sends out a notification to qualified volunteers in the area who are registered and vetted through the network.
Volunteers have been deployed to care for pets during the 2013 floods, set up relief stations during forest fires, and lately, help with coronavirus testing.
Williamson answered a call to give tetanus vaccinations during the 2013 Black Forest fire in El Paso County. After the fire swept through, residents who were allowed to return home first had to have tetanus shots to enter the area. Williamson was often the last person they saw as they prepared to face a home that had been reduced to ashes.
“Once people realized they had lost everything, and they were going back in for the first time, to be the person they saw and talked to … it was a very profound experience,” she said.
In the past decade, Williamson also has volunteered after floods and to give meningitis vaccinations. “At every event, people are so grateful,” she said. “Every single person is just so humble and so thankful that we are there.”
Scott Harpin, an associate professor at the University of Colorado College of Nursing, signed up to volunteer at a homeless shelter for women during the pandemic. He picks up about one shift per week, providing primary care and first aid to women living at the Denver Coliseum. The Coliseum is a temporary shelter set up during the outbreak after shelters in downtown Denver reduced capacity in the era of social distancing.
Harpin often brings nursing students, who report to him that the experience is “mind-blowing.” Along with using their nursing skills, they are learning about social justice, he said.
“They are learning about equity in real time,” Harpin said. “They have really appreciated giving back, but also giving back in a meaningful way.”
Harpin registered with Colorado Volunteer Mobilizer when he moved to Colorado, and was part of Minnesota’s network when he was on faculty at the University of Minnesota. His first deployment was in 2005, to help with Hurricane Katrina.
A group from the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic brought health care to shelters, churches and a Buddhist monastery, traveling in vans across central Louisiana.
Last year in Denver, Harpin signed up to provide hepatitis A vaccinations to the homeless community after an outbreak of the liver disease in Colorado. Over the span of months, he and other volunteers brought hep A shots to shelters and public parks.
This summer, at the Coliseum women’s shelter, Harpin and other volunteers triage patients and, during business hours, send them to the Stout Street Clinic, run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Otherwise, they treat their wounds and illnesses and send them to the clinic for follow-up.
In El Paso County, the Medical Reserve Corps — whose volunteers are part of the statewide database — has received 180 new volunteers during the pandemic, bringing its total roster to 280.
Coordinator Barb Bridgemon said the corps has helped on six missions so far related to COVID-19. The first was to answer phones at a call center that traced the early cases of the virus, including among players in a bridge tournament.
Other volunteers have been dispatched to long-term care facilities to provide relief to staff as the outbreak ravaged nursing homes.
Two missions are ongoing — contact tracing and a telehealth center where volunteer doctors, nurses and physician assistants field calls from homeless shelters about the virus.
All the volunteers in the corps are vetted through Colorado Volunteer Mobilizer, a task that Bridgemon said she could not keep up with on her own. More than 100 volunteers have signed up for a mission related to coronavirus in the last four months, some of them, like Williamson, working multiple shifts per week.
“It boggles my mind all the time, what they do,” Bridgemon said.