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June 2, 2020

By Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science staff

Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine students in Arizona and Minnesota are maintaining their momentum in finding creative ways to volunteer their time toward responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Answering a need for help as COVID-19 began to spread in the U.S. earlier in the year, Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine students in Arizona and Minnesota began volunteering to conduct digital health surveys, provide dependent care, answer phones, organize blood donations, and pitch in wherever extra hands were needed.

A few months have passed since that time, but the medical students show no signs of slowing down their volunteer efforts, even when faced with challenges such as increased restrictions in patient areas, state lock-downs and social distancing guidelines.

Ongoing efforts in Arizona

When many of the volunteer activities around COVID-19 organized by medical students in Arizona were suspended due to increased precautionary measures to curb the spread of the disease, the students began volunteering in new ways.

Third-year student Joshua Spegman has been reaching out to local businesses to ask for donations of personal protective equipment.

"We reached out to over 100 businesses, such exterminators, dentists, dermatologists and tattoo parlors, and were included in a mailer sent out to a large group of subcontractors in the region," Spegman says. Fellow student Patricia Bai is creating flyers for the personal protective equipment drive and creating instructions on proper mask use in several languages.

To keep the supply of protective equipment coming, the students have connected with a local seamstress and her team of 30 people who are making homemade cloth masks with filter inserts.

The students have donated over 200 masks so far to Mayo Clinic in Arizona. 

Bai and Rachel Perez joined the COVID-19 Health Literacy Project — which aims to help patients from vulnerable communities know when and how to seek care by creating and translating COVID-19 information — and have helped with the design, translation and dissemination of COVID-19 materials.

"It's a national medical student effort where students at various medical schools all came together to help," Bai says. "It's awesome to be a part of."

George Mastorakos and Aditya Khurana, had previously developed a digital health survey to be given at screening checkpoints for COVID-19, but they've reassessed their efforts.  

"As online screening tools are continually optimized internally by Information Technology and Healthcare Incident Command teams, our focus has shifted to empowering the networks of fellow medical students and other health care personnel to engage in knowledge sharing of best practices," Mastorakos says.

"This shift to knowledge sharing led us to be part of the Care Collaboratory, an institution that uses human-centered design thinking approaches to problems in health care. Through work with designers, physicians and business school professors, medical students who are part of the Care Collaboratory have been employing design thinking in the engagement of fellow students and health care-minded folk across the globe." 

On Thursday evenings, the students host a "Virtual Campfire Series," where students come together via video chat to share knowledge and discuss how to overcome challenges in responding to COVID-19. For example, a medical student from Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine was connected with an anesthesia resident in Vermont, which led to the testing of new material for adequate particulate filtering.

Students continue to volunteer with the Maricopa County Public Health Department, which needs volunteers to help with logistics as well as call center teams. Maricopa County Public Health disseminates information to the public as well as county providers, and this help from medical students alleviates much of the burden on their staff.

"I have been able to volunteer with both and have been spreading information to classmates on how to apply to be a volunteer with their organization," Spegman says.

Students also continue to offer dependent care services to Mayo Clinic staff. Since the effort to provide child and elder care began in March, 20 medical students have volunteered their time and have been paired with essential staff.

Stepping up to help in Minnesota

Minnesota implemented restrictions before Arizona, so medical students became innovative in their volunteering efforts by reaching out to the community as well as staff around Mayo Clinic.

When they learned there were families in need of basic items such as food, the students worked with Family Services of Rochester to collect and distribute food. The effort was coordinated by Kylie Anderson, Johnny Dan, Shane Ford, Alexis Johnson, and Samuel Rouleau.

Students are working with Family Services of Rochester to reach out to local senior citizens and check on them during a time where the seniors may feel isolated and vulnerable. The students have been paired with one or more senior citizens who they call several times a week to check in, chat and see if they need anything. If the seniors need anything, such as groceries or prescriptions, the students pass that information on to Family Services of Rochester who help fulfill the need.

"This is an isolating, scary time, and that can be particularly true for elderly members of our community," says Nathan Rockey, who is part of the effort. "This is a way for us to care for people in our community while maintaining social distancing."

When there was a shortage of masks in March when COVID-19 began to spread, Catherine Gao and a team of 10 students worked with Zumbro Valley Medical Society to procure masks for front-line staff. The group has worked with local sewing expert Carol Best to fashion masks that meet the needs for protecting patients and staff.

"In addition to physically providing masks, the work we've done has been helpful for prototyping a pattern to include a filter as well as considerations for scaling-up," Gao says.

More than 100 masks have been distributed to local organizations, such as Bear Creek and Madonna Living.

This story originally appeared in the Mayo Clinic News Center.