Feds urge med students, retirees to volunteer in the fight against COVID-19

OTTAWA — The federal government is seeking volunteers with medical experience to provide backup support in the fight against COVID-19.

Health Canada is creating a database of specialized volunteers provinces and territories can draw on to help track down people who have been in contact with positive cases, collect data and provide surge capacity at hospitals.

The online application process was launched this week.

“It’s asking people who have the skill set to do public health, like contact-tracing and other skills that provinces are looking for, to apply,” said chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam.

Most public health agencies in major jurisdictions still have the resources to try to track down the close contacts of every person confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 to try to break the chains of transmission, Tam said. They tell those contacts that they might have been exposed to the illness and to take preventive measures.

It’s a vital effort in the fight against the virus and, as cases increase, the people doing the work are likely to become overloaded and will need the help, she said.

That’s where medical students come in.

“All of us are itching to contribute in some way,” said Heidi Li, a third-year medical student at the University of Ottawa.

Like other medical students in the country, Li’s spring clinical rotation was cancelled due to the pandemic, leaving her to look for other ways to help.

In a few years, she and her fellow students will be on the front lines and she said she wants to help her colleagues who are already doing the work.

“It’s great that everyone would have a chance to help out in a safe way and effective way,” Li said.

The Middlesex-London Health Unit in southern Ontario has already recruited 60 medical students from Western University to join their efforts against the virus.

“I think it’s good for them, I think it’s good for us,” said Dr. Chris Mackie, the Middlesex-London medical officer of health.

The medical school offered the help, he said, and the health unit was keen to take it. The students’ clinical experience and wealth of medical knowledge will be put to good use, he said.

“This sort of thing is going to be needed as we reach the peak over the next coming weeks,” Mackie said.

The first group of 30 medical students were trained remotely Friday morning, and another group will be trained next week. They will be able to do the work from home.

The federal program aims to make similar volunteers available on a greater scale.

The applications will be open until April 24.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020.

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