Maine COVID Sitters easing child care burden for front-line health workers

As more and more doctors, nurses, primary care physicians, and others get called to work in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, many have found it increasingly difficult to find care for their children, who would otherwise spend their time in school or in daycare.

Five students in the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine (UNE COM) – Laura Knapik, B.S., (D.O., ’22), Catherine Cattley, B.S., (D.O., ’22), Lindsey Millen, B.S., (D.O., ’22), Margaret Calamari, B.S., (D.O., ’23), and Colin Fisher, B.S., (D.O., ’23) – saw this burden and knew they needed to take action. Together, they formed the Maine COVID Sitters, a group of health professions students providing child care, pet care, and household services to health care families in the Greater Portland area.

While the group is not an official, University-sanctioned organization, the students have come together on their own to fill the widening gap in the child care needs of front-line health care workers. There are now more than 65 UNE students across multiple disciplines, including osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, occupational therapy, dental medicine, and more currently volunteering as Maine COVID Sitters.

Knapik said they were inspired by the work of a similar group of students from the University of Minnesota, the MN CovidSitters, who have amassed hundreds of student volunteers. That group helped Knapik and her team establish Maine’s effort by providing them with intake forms and contracts for both students and health care families.

“We’re acting as good Samaritans in this, but we’re not certified child care providers,” Knapik said. “Because the Minnesota group sent us their documents, we were able to get our group up and running in 48 hours.”

COVID Sitters in groups of up to five are matched to one health care family and work in shifts to minimize the burden on each student. Families work with the sitters to determine time requirements and to schedule each shift.

Organizing the group is a lot of work, but Knapik credits her colleagues and fellow UNE COM students for helping spread word about the project. For medical students like Knapik, who do not yet have the ability to practice medicine, serving as COVID Sitters allows them to still assist during a medically dire time.

“As students, we’re not in a position to directly help patients. Rather than just stand on the sidelines, this is something we can actively do to help those people who are on the front lines, who are seeing patients, to make it a little bit easier for them to do what they need to do to keep our community safe,” Knapik said. “I felt I didn’t want to just stay inside. I wanted to figure out a way to help my future colleagues.”

Millen, a lifelong athlete, echoed Knapik’s sentiment and compared the feeling of standing back to being benched during a big game.

“Sitting on the sideline is one of the hardest tasks your coach can ask you to do,” Millen said. “However, when faced with that reality, you have two choices: sit down and wait, or stand up and support your team. We chose to support our future team members in the health care field by creating Maine COVID Sitters.”

While many students have signed up to become COVID Sitters, the organizers are still encouraging others to sign up if they are able. Requests for sitters are starting to come in from beyond the Portland region as new cases of COVID-19 emerge each day and medical professionals become increasingly strained.

“As time has gone on and we have picked up momentum, it’s becoming really clear that the need is out there as schools and daycares remain closed and health providers are being asked to work longer and longer hours,” Calamari said.

Knapik also stressed that volunteer slots are not limited to UNE students. She said any health professions students in the Greater Portland area are welcome to reach out if they are interested in volunteering to be Maine COVID Sitters.

“As the pandemic continues, we are seeing even more of a need for care from our families,” she said. “This is tight spot for all of us, and the greatest thing we can do is support one another.”

Those interested can email mainecovidsitters@gmail.com, or find the group online at https://www.mecovidsitters.org/.

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