Emory University Hospital./Ruth Reyes

As COVID-19 sweeps the U.S., current medical students are struggling to sit on the sidelines while watching their mentors battle the pandemic. Instead of keeping idle, a group of Emory medical students created the Atlanta Student COVID Response, a student-led initiative that strives to assist Emory front-line health care workers through two main branches: volunteering services ranging from babysitting to packaging medicine and facilitating donations of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and disposable gowns. 

With the U.S. facing a surge of COVID-19 cases, medical student Zachary West (20M) began brainstorming ways to help the Emory medical community in early March. Inspired by MN CovidSitters, a volunteer group based in Minnesota offering household services to healthcare workers, West reached out to fellow medical students Aimee Vester (19G, 21M), Alexandra Speak (22M) and Emily Trautner (20M) about his ideas. On March 14, the group, along with five other Emory medical students, founded the Atlanta Student COVID Response.

The volunteering branch began by offering services such as babysitting, pet-sitting and buying groceries for medical residents and fellows at risk of infection. 

“We want the healthcare workers to focus on treating the patients, knowing that they have a trusted group of medical students to help take care of their daily needs,” West said.

More than 300 medical students joined the group within less than a month, accruing new ideas and much-needed personnel. As medical students, many of the volunteers have previously worked closely with the front-line health care workers and were eager to help them.

“We’re all motivated to help the people … who [have] helped us learn in the hospital,” Vester said.

As membership climbs, the team has expanded to include 18 volunteer initiatives, ranging from packaging medicine to helping food banks. Though appreciative of the many students willing to help, West admitted that the organization’s inundation initially caused difficulties. 

“The biggest challenge initially was optimizing the process so that we didn’t have to act as middlemen,” West said.

To centralize the information for the different volunteer opportunities, the team created an email and a website for the organization. The team also decided to have each service split into groups of 10-15 students with one student leader. Each group leader attends weekly hour-long Zoom meetings on Sundays.

“We’ve pretty effectively set up streams of communication,” Trautner said. “We set up a little organization pretty quickly to try and make things as efficient as possible.” 

Trautner said the team has been trying to tailor tasks to skill sets. Speak, who has experience in marketing and communications, helped connect the team to various volunteer opportunities at Emory hospitals. Trautner, with a background in event planning, runs the weekly meetings for her small group and facilitates the PPE donations.

In addition to the weekly Sunday meetings, Trautner also holds hour-long meetings on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with her small volunteer group involved in PPE donations. Her team creates fliers and advertisements asking for PPE donations and reaches out to people and businesses that have access to PPE, such as veterinarians, dentists and nail salons. 

In an effort to minimize human contact with the donations, the team has centralized all the donations to be mailed or dropped off to Emory Faculty Office Building. Trautner said the team has already delivered over 1,000 boxes of PPE to Atlanta area hospitals, and West emphasized the importance of a sufficient supply of PPE. 

“We’re going to keep making coordinated efforts to make our frontline health care workers have enough PPE to keep treating patients,” West said.

Though medical students of all years signed up to volunteer, some initiatives were limited to only more experienced students. For patient outreach, which involves calling high-risk patients who have not accessed medical care recently to help answer patients’ questions and guide them through their illness, only fourth-year medical students were permitted to volunteer.

All medical students, regardless of experience, are able to help with other initiatives. These services include creating care packages for front-line health workers to show appreciation and boost morale, packaging medicine to mail to non-hospitalized confirmed COVID-19 patients and helping amplify the organization’s message through social media by monitoring the organization’s Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Though the organization currently only consists of Emory medical students, West said the team aims to expand to include medical students from surrounding medical schools in Georgia. As the team rapidly increases in size, Speak is not surprised that so many medical students are willing to help.

“I think it’s hard for us to sit on the sidelines because, at the end of the day, that’s not why we went into medicine,” Speak said. “We really want to help fight this outbreak, so a lot of students are really jumping at the opportunity to get involved.” 

Update (5/2/20) at 01:04 a.m.: This article was updated to include the number of boxes of protective equipment the group has delivered and the exact location for donation drop-offs.