It started with a need: With the closure of schools and a shortage of household supplies in local stores, health care professionals responding to the Covid-19 pandemic were struggling to support their families.
In Minneosta, a couple of medical students came up with an idea. Why couldn’t they help try to relieve the burden?
The result was a volunteer network throughout the state that matches medical students with health care workers in need of child care, pet-sitting, or just help with errands like grocery runs. In short order, the group, known as MN Covidsitters, has drawn together more than 350 volunteers and provided support to a couple of hundred health care workers — a number that grows every day.
The idea is to “help people in the community with families that have helped us,” said Londyn Robinson, a third-year medical student at the University of Minnesota and a member of MN Covidsitters.
“I grew up in a very rural part of the United States and my mom is a single parent,” Robinson said. “If things like this would happen, we didn’t have any other option.”
This group is one of countless support organizations that have sprouted up in communities across the U.S. to assist those most severely affected by the pandemic: older adults, those with existing health conditions, and health care workers caring for patients with Covid-19. In some cases the grassroots efforts are small, in other cases they’re not. But organizers say that they are a way to show the support they’re able to provide.
Medical students at a number of schools across the U.S., including Harvard University, New York University, and Columbia University, have taken note of the Minnesota group and contacted organizers to either form nationwide partnerships or to get guidance on how to replicate the same model in their respective communities.
Laura Knapik, a medical student at the University of New England, reached after reading about the group’s work on Twitter. Before long, she had assembled her own support group in Maine.
“We were able to launch and go live in 48 hours because of how much work MN Covidsitters had done in pioneering this work,” said Knapik.
The Minnesota network operates by matching health care workers with volunteers, based on the workers’ location and needs, as well as the availability and experience of the students. According to Robinson, MN Covidsitters extends its services to all health care employees in the area — not just physicians and nurses but custodians, cafeteria cooks, and others. And since the program is not affiliated with UMN, all health care students from UMN and other local universities are welcome to volunteer.
Ariella Altman, a general surgery resident in Saint Paul, turned to the group for help in caring for her 2-year-old and 4-year-old. It’s allowed her and her husband to continue their jobs without any major disruptions, despite the stress and anxiety of work.
“My husband and I were reassured that this a safe and caring option for our kids when we saw medical students because we knew they’d be responsible and conscious of what’s going on in the world of Covid,” Altman said.
There’s also an app in development that will help automate the process of matching families with volunteers. It’s being developed by a member of the group, Jack Doenges, who acknowledges his own technical experience is limited.
“The experience has been challenging, but I am surprised by how open the app developing community has been … everyone who I have come in contact with online has been so generous with their time and expertise,” said Doenges.
Doenges, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Minnesota, said the group hopes to partner with a tech company to help accelerate the process. Then, the group hopes, other medical school students around the country can use the app to help their own communities.