Jim Bristow officially retired from his position as deputy director of the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in July 2015 but continued to work part-time on the next phase of the proposed bioscience campus. At that point, Jim and his wife moved to Vashon Island, a community of 11,000, as part of his retirement life.
Jim’s wife became ill in late February of 2020 with what they believe was probably COVID-19, and Jim soon realized that island life had drawbacks. There is no after-hours medical care. No hospital. And the closest emergency help is a 90-minutes away by ferry and car. And the local medical office was unwilling to test her since the office was afraid to have her come in and potentially spread her illness to others.
Jim put his research skills into practice and, working with an island disaster preparedness group, VashonBePrepared, opened a free coronavirus testing center for the island. The group normally focused on earthquake preparedness since the island would be on its own for potentially weeks after a strong earthquake, but they were interested in exploring how they could use their existing structure to respond to the pandemic. The group was activated on March 12, 2020. They did their first COVID test on April 7.
“As part of this effort, I also joined our local Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). MRCs were formed after the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. About 800 of these volunteer medical groups across the country are now set up to help in their communities. COVID came slowly to our island, but when it did, it hit hard in the late fall of 2020. Fortunately, we had used the time to be prepared with a response strategy.”
“We concentrated on three areas to protect our community: public engagement through weekly situation reports printed in the local newspaper; testing, contract tracing, and vaccinations; and financial support for the community. We did contact tracing of 85% of all known Vashon cases and administered 75% of all vaccine doses given to island residents. We also distributed over $500,0000 to community organizations to support the food bank and other community organizations that were assisting those who had lost their jobs.”
Jim said his volunteer work came out to about 70 hours a week. Despite the long hours, he said the team avoided burnout. “We knew relatively early on that we were winning. Overall the case rate on the island was less than 30% compared to the county at large. Some thought our lower rate was due to being on an island, but through the pandemic, about 30% of the population made a round trip off the island daily. We believe the MRC made a major difference.”
Jim and the team have published a paper, Interplay of demographics, geography and COVID-19 pandemic responses in the Puget Sound region: The Vashon, Washington Medical Reserve Corps experience about their COVID work. “People on an island are more likely to help their neighbors. Public health researchers looked at the factors they thought were predictors of pandemic preparedness, but almost none of them turned out to be correlated. The only correlated items (other than age) were trust in government and a sense of community. On Vashon Island, when we said to wear a mask, people put on a mask. When we said get vaccinated, they rolled up their sleeves.”
“This hasn’t been the retirement of my dreams, but I learned to be open to opportunities. My volunteer experience was incredibly rewarding, and I hadn’t expected to have that in retirement. Lab employees are talented, and it is a shame to let those talents go to waste in retirement. I was getting a bit bored after retirement until these opportunities came along, and I’ve become an advocate for volunteering. I’ve made incredible friends in my community through volunteering.”
And now that Jim’s COVID work is over? “My wife and I are finally getting to travel. We have a kayaking trip planned, among other trips. And I’m still volunteering, working to pass our local fire district tax levy.”