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Medical students mobilize, form group to provide free services to health care workers

Medical students at UCLA are recruiting volunteers and finding ways to support health care workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. LA COVID-19 Volunteers, is one such venture. The organization, which was established last month, now has over 300 student volunteers. (Top left to right: courtesy of Rose Paneno, E Colin Reeves-Fortney & Prestige Portraits; Bottom left to right: courtesy of Tanya Datta)

By Sarah Nelson

April 9, 2020 6:47 p.m.

Medical students at UCLA are mobilizing volunteers to support health care workers in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

LA COVID-19 Volunteers, established by UCLA medical students last month, now has over 300 student volunteers, who are assisting families of health care workers with free services such as child care, pet sitting and errands. LACV is also helping to make and distribute personal protective equipment and cloth face masks to those at greatest risk of infection.

The group consists of four teams, each focused on a different area of service: personal protective equipment recruitment, health care worker services, community partnerships and communications.

The volunteer group began as separate COVID-19 relief efforts, headed by UCLA medical students. UCLA medical student and third-year class vice president Sarah Andebrhan reached out to these students and connected them into one cohesive health care initiative, which became LACV.

“We are really pleased by the outpouring of support from the community, our Bruins on the UCLA campus and our many supporters, volunteering to provide child care for our employees, offering to bring in meals for those working, and assist in any way possible to confront this pandemic,’’ said Johnese Spisso, president of UCLA Health.

Andebrhan’s initial goal was to develop a support system for students and workers with children. Andebrhan worked with fellow third-year medical student and young mother Elyse Conley to establish LACV.

Andebrhan connected Conley to third-year medical student Mona Deng, who reached out to an existing COVID-sitter program at the University of Minnesota in order to create a similar model in LA.

Conley and Deng became co-directors of what is now the health care worker services team. Their team assists in matching families of health care workers with volunteers who buy and deliver groceries to them, and offer babysitting and pet-sitting services.

LACV expanded to include personal protective equipment management after Andebrhan contacted David Geffen School of Medicine Vice Dean for Education Clarence Braddock, who informed her of similar efforts by first-year medical students like Rose Paneno.

The personal protective equipment team, which is now managed by Paneno, has several ongoing initiatives, including a program to ask local businesses in the greater LA area for donations of personal protective equipment supplies, such as medical grade face shields, surgical gowns, goggles and N95 masks.

“We are trying to see if any local businesses like tattoo parlors, nail salons, dentist offices, textile and clothing makers are willing to donate to hospitals in need, … as these businesses tend to have a lot of these materials and they are shut down because of social distancing protocols,’’ Paneno said.

Although Paneno hopes to expand the delivery of personal protective equipment, at the moment volunteer efforts are focused on Olive View and Harbor UCLA medical centers, the two facilities in greatest need within the UCLA Health system.

“As we expand, we will be able to provide more resources to other hospitals as well,” Paneno said. “But right now, those are the two that have reached out to us and said that they have the greatest need at this time.”

The personal protective equipment team is also leading efforts to create disposable face shields needed by health care workers in the UCLA Health system. Volunteers have created nearly 6,650 face shields so far.

Conley, health care worker services co-director of LACV, has begun fundraising via GoFundMe for a new initiative within LACV called LA COVID Food Corps.

The money will be used to purchase at least 200 hot meals per week for janitorial staff, emergency department and internal care unit physicians in one of LA’s safety-net hospitals, Harbor UCLA Medical Center, where staff treat some of the sickest and most socioeconomically vulnerable patients in the area.

Conley added that the funding will also be used to purchase critical items and food for hospital workers earning wages at or below the livability index for Los Angeles County, a quantitative and qualitative tool that measures quality of life and satisfaction of residents in a given city.

“Health care is meant to be a collaborative effort, with the patient front and center, supported by a team partnership of health care workers, who use their knowledge to reach the goals of the patient,” Conley said. “I believe that we have a truly beautiful opportunity to really engage and serve our greater community, before we are full-fledged physicians.’’

In developing LACV, Conley said she hoped to create a program that would engage individuals with their community, allowing them to realize the impact of this pandemic on different levels of society.

“What we are trying to do is break down the institutional walls, build community based on the desire to serve, and have it be about the joint struggle we are engaged in, regardless of the letters behind your name, such as MD, DO, or NP,” Conley said.

Paneno added that students of all capabilities, majors and schools are encouraged to join.

“We are working in tandem with UCLA, but we are open to every school, and every group of students that is interested in helping in this crisis,’’ Paneno said.

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Sarah Nelson
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