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Team Rubicon volunteers are helping Navajo Nation fight the coronavirus

By MIKE EASTERLING | The Daily Times | Published: December 28, 2020

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FARMINGTON, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact the Navajo Nation, a national nonprofit organization led by veterans that specializes in disaster relief continues to do what it can to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

Team Rubicon — a Los Angeles-based organization that counts military veterans, health-care professionals and first responders among its volunteers — has had a team of its Greyshirt volunteers working at the Gallup Indian Health Center since Nov. 25.

The 10 members of the team include nurses, EMTs, paramedics and others who are working alongside the hospital's regular staff in the emergency room, as well as helping with mobile testing operations and staff vaccinations.

Nick Mrzlak, the deputy director of field leadership for Team Rubicon and a Farmington resident, said that while the rate of COVID-19 infections in New Mexico may be declining again, it continues to have a devastating impact on the Navajo Nation.

"What we're seeing in Gallup is a steady increase in cases," he said, explaining that officials expect that trend to continue for at least the next several weeks.

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Team Rubicon volunteers are being deployed to Gallup for 10- or 14-day rotations, and they are being counted on to provide relief to the regular hospital staff members who are being overwhelmed by the spread of the virus.

"Morale is positive, but there is no doubt fatigue is setting in across the board," Mrzlak said of the atmosphere in Gallup.

The regular staff members at the Gallup Indian Health Center have been dealing with the fallout from the pandemic for nine months, and Mrzlak said it was apparent to Team Rubicon officials that those workers could use some help when the number of cases on the Navajo Nation surged again this fall.

"They're worked their butts off, and they're fatigued," Mrzlak said of those hospital workers. "And they're shorthanded, so they have to pull down double shifts."

Many Team Rubicon volunteers have come and taken over as many 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shifts as they can in 10- or 14-day increments so that the regular hospital employees can get some rest and spend some time with their families. Mrzlak credited the administration and staff at the facility with doing everything they could to help Team Rubicon members feel welcome and well prepared, explaining that his volunteers have been able to step into work roles almost immediately after their arrival at the hospital.

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The arrival of the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in Gallup and across the country last week was a welcome development, Mrzlak said, explaining that it had a noticeable impact on the mood among regular hospital workers and his volunteers.

"I don't know that we saw relief this week, but we saw hope," he said, explaining that while everyone knows it will be several weeks to a few months before the positive impact of the vaccinations is felt, that development still was a major milestone in the battle to control the spread of the virus.

"It really encouraged everybody who's working out there," he said. "But they know there's a long fight ahead of them. They're not losing sight of the big picture."

Mrzlak believes his organization has a big role to play in helping with the vaccination distribution effort. Since many Team Rubicon volunteers once served in the military, they are skilled at and familiar with rapid-deployment efforts.

He noted that while some Team Rubicon health-care professionals have contributed to their services, many times to help patients in other parts of the world that were struck by natural disasters, this is the first time they've put those skills to use in their own country. That makes their experience in Gallup and other locations particularly rewarding, he said.

"Our members are incredibly excited to be out there and supporting the Navajo Nation," Mrzlak said.

This is the second time Team Rubicon has provided help to the Navajo Nation during the pandemic. Mrzlak said the organization had teams in Kayenta and Chinle, Arizona, for three months after the pandemic started in March.

Anyone interested in providing financial or volunteer assistance to Team Rubicon can do so in several ways. The easiest way is through the organization's Text to Give program, which allows donors to contribute $10 by simply texting RUBICON to 20222. To donate $25, text TEAM to the same number. Those interested in donating a different amount should visit teamrubiconusa.org/give.

Anyone interested in becoming a Team Rubicon volunteer should visit teamrubiconusa.org. Mrzlak emphasized that having medical skills or being a military veteran is not a prerequisite, as the organization needs individuals who are not at high risk of contracting the virus to help with the vaccination distribution effort.

measterling@daily-times.com

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