Guest column Merridith O’Leary: Medical Reserve Corps honored for meningitis outbreak response, issues call for volunteers

  • Ann Becker, public health nurse at UMass Amherst, speaks Nov. 14, 2017 at a press conference on campus regarding two students recently diagnosed with meningitis. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 4/29/2019 9:24:25 AM

In the fall of 2017, two University of Massachusetts students became ill with a very serious disease known as meningococcal sterotype B. An additional case was diagnosed in early 2018 in a student at nearby Smith College who was thought to have visited friends at UMass. These cases led to Hampshire County being declared to be in “outbreak status.”

Meningococcal disease is caused by infection with bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. These bacteria can infect the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord and cause meningitis, or they may infect the blood or other body organs. These bacteria are passed from person-to-person through saliva, and patients typically have a sudden onset of fever, stiff neck, headache, nausea, vomiting, and/or mental confusion and can be life-threatening.

This serious threat to public health required health officials to open an emergency dispensing site to efficiently administer meningitis B vaccinations to thousands of students, as this is not a required childhood vaccine.

The Hampshire Public Health Preparedness Coalition (HPHPC), which is a countywide emergency planning coalition run out the Northampton Health Department, has previously identified suitable emergency dipensing sites throughout the county and has developed detailed plans for an activation.

The Hampshire Public Health Preparedness Coalition consists of Boards of Health and Health Departments from Hampshire County. Funding is provided through the Massachusetts Department of Public Health with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control.

Opening an emergency dispensing site is not an easy task. It requires hundreds of people to staff a vaccination clinic. Fortunately, we have more than 800 Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) members throughout Hampshire County and they have proven to be a valuable asset during public health emergencies.

Loren Davine, the HPHPC and MRC coordinator who maintains, recruits and trains volunteers who are willing to assist their community in an emergency. The MRC is a national network of volunteers, organized locally to improve the health and safety of their communities. MRC volunteers include medical and public health professionals, as well as other community members without health care backgrounds. MRC units engage these volunteers to strengthen public health, improve emergency response capabilities and build community resiliency.

The Hampshire County MRC most often assists with flu clinics, emergency shelter operations, emergency dispensing sites, warming/cooling centers. It also provides first aid at local community events.

Earlier this month, the Hampshire County MRC was nationally recognized with a Community Response Award for greatly contributing to the large-scale emergency dispensing site in response to the meningitis B outbreak in this region. With the help of the Hampshire County MRC, UMass and Smith College quickly and efficiently administered more than 11,000 vaccinations on campus during the 2018 academic year. The emergency dispensing site had 40 vaccination stations, which helped patients get in an out in less than 10 minutes, on average.

The successful response was due to years of planning, strong partnerships, and annual full-scale exercises. In 2005, unit leader Dr. Ann Becker helped to establish a partnership with the UMass School of Nursing to embed MRC core competencies and membership into the nursing program curriculum, resulting in 300 trained students for the MRC each year.

Becker has also advocated for a memorandum of understanding with the dean to excuse nursing students from classes during a public health emergency. These partnerships, established long before an emergency, are integral in any successful emergency response.

In the wake of National Volunteer Week (April 7-12), we encourage you to consider joining the Hampshire County MRC and learning how you can assist your community. For more information or to register, please visit:, or contact Merridith O’Leary at the Northampton Health Department.

Merridith O’Leary is director of public health for the city of Northampton.

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