If the COVID vaccine is to liberate us, we urgently need new ways to deliver it. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) recently proposed enlisting retired medical professionals. Just a few days later, University of Massachusetts leaders Dr. Michael Collins and Martin Meehan, formerly a seven-term Democratic Congressman, called for a “Vaccine Corps” made up of college students and recent graduates.
Both are great ideas. Even better: Let’s combine them, bring retired health care workers and young adults together, and create an intergenerational service corps that can quickly and efficiently vaccinate millions of Americans.
Bringing the two generations together combines the different life experiences and skills of both, making for a powerful pairing. Retired doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists could provide the shots and monitor patients for reactions. Young adults, as Collins and Meehan suggest, could “help contact trace, inform, and support the logistics of distributing, administering, and tracking hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.”
With Covid scuttling life plans, retired health care professionals and young adults are the two populations most likely to have—and give—significant time to service. In normal times, young people have yet to commit to careers, parenthood and mortgages; older ones have moved beyond midlife responsibilities and seek new purpose.
In this crisis, young and old saw the need and rushed to meet it. Young people across the nation created tech platforms to identify and meet the needs of isolated elders. And elders, themselves at great risk, stepped up, too. In New York City, 1,000 retired medical personnel volunteered to help within 24 hours of Governor Cuomo’s call. By the end of March, 76,000 people—many of them retired doctors and nurses—had volunteered.
In coming weeks, retirees may respond to a call with even greater enthusiasm. As frontline workers, they would be vaccinated, dramatically reducing risk.
There are other benefits to this powerful pairing of young and old. Research suggests that combining the skills and experience of different generations can boost innovation and productivity. And meaningful connection across generations provides opportunities for cross-mentoring and mutual learning, a chance to break down stereotypes about age and race as people get to know one another, and a new way to build bridges and rebuild community.
An intergenerational Vaccine Corps would build on a long track record of successful service initiatives. For decades, Americans have stepped up to meet urgent community needs—from natural disasters to homelessness to the struggle to help all children learn to read. Each year, hundreds of thousands of AmeriCorps members serve in programs like City Year, Teach For America and the National Civilian Conservation Corps, while AmeriCorps Seniors serve in programs like AARP Experience Corps, Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions.
There is ample evidence, too, that bringing generations together works to meet community needs. It happens informally in places like food banks, soup kitchens and Habitat for Humanity sites every day.
While there is no formal, widely available intergenerational service corps in the U.S., there are organizations that bring older and younger generations together to serve. At SBP, a social impact organization focused on disaster resilience and recovery, intergenerational teams work to rebuild resilient communities in the U.S. and Bahamas. A COVID Containment Response Corps in Colorado brings AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors together to do contract tracing and support frontline health workers in other ways.
For the past two years, our Encore Physicians program has engaged retired physicians to help solve doctor shortages at health clinics in underserved communities and to mentor younger clinicians. Many retired doctors are eager to do more, asking how they can help support the Covid immunization effort. A call to retired registered nurses, dentists and pharmacists would likely produce many more professionals qualified to help.
Mobilizing people to deliver vaccines of course requires leadership and funding. But this intergenerational approach can be up and running quickly. At the federal level, AmeriCorps infrastructure already exists; indeed, in Colorado AmeriCorps members who were already serving were redeployed to meet a more urgent need.
And there are other options. State governments or state service programs like the Commonwealth Corps in Massachusetts or California Volunteers could run statewide programs. City agencies could do the same. Existing programs, like Encore Physicians, could be expanded. Online training could provide both efficiency and a consistent approach to safety and patient care.
The need to vaccinate millions is urgent. This solution is hiding in plain sight.
Gerald Bourne, M.D., directs Encore Physicians. Phyllis Segal, a former board member of the Corporation for National and Community Service, is a senior fellow at Encore.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.