June 23, 2008

Leader of Volunteer Corps Cut in Orange

By Samuel Spies, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Jun. 23--CHAPEL HILL -- They're volunteers who train to provide mass immunizations and disaster relief.

But members of Orange County's Public Health Reserve Corps worry it and another program will collapse if the county doesn't fund the Health Department's volunteer coordinator position.

Last week county commissioners decided not to fund the job next year, which would have cost $48,000. The position has been partially grant funded; this year the county paid $25,000 to make up the difference.

The county commissioners will discuss the position again Tuesday, Orange County Commissioners Chairman Barry Jacobs said Sunday.

There's been discussion about shifting funds within the health department, he said.

Jacobs said his fellow commissioners have not voiced specific opposition to the program.

"It's more of an issue of not wanting to grow the government more than we have to," he said.

"I think it'll be a disaster not to have this in place," said nurse Sonda Oppewal, a reserve corps member. "We know that in the event of a disaster, it's the local response that is critical and has to take place before state and federal aid will come."

Health director Rosemary Summers said the corps has about 240 members, including pharmacists, veterinarians, social workers and translators.

The Orange County program is seen as a model, she said, and its volunteer coordinator was one of only two asked to speak this year at a national conference.

During a flu vaccine shortage a few years ago, the county turned to the corps to direct 1,500 people on a waiting list to available shots.

Having a coordinator is essential to a fast, organized response, Summers said.

"If we had a novel flu virus that they developed a vaccine for, or a widespread distribution of anthrax that we needed to get medicine to our entire population, there's a time limit to do that," she said.

"Without the ability to sustain the training or to keep them motivated or organized, it means that we end up having to do it on the spot," she added.

The volunteer coordinator also manages the county's Community Emergency Response Team program. CERT members work more closely with the emergency management department than the health department, but it made sense to have one coordinator for both programs, Summers said.

The CERT program has about 70 members, who train in light search and rescue, first aid, putting out small fires and other emergency response tasks.

Summers said there's another position in the department for volunteer coordinator Amanda Bartolomeo but said she isn't sure Bartolomeo will want a different job.

One Board of Health member has asked the county commissioners to explain their decision.

Chris Harlan, like Oppewal a faculty member at UNC's School of Nursing, wants to know if the commissioners oppose the program or just thought they couldn't afford it.

The commissioners struggled last week to cut $5 million from the $188 million budget to help keep taxes low.

"My impression from the staff is that this is a very valuable program, that they're willing to try to cut back in other areas to support," Harlan said. "It's sort of like having an insurance policy."

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