A group of University of Minnesota medical students is seeking to ease the burden for health care workers’ families while those workers are on the front lines of COVID-19.

Newly formed nonprofit MN Covidsitters, in partnership with Minnesota-based health-technology startup Clinician Nexus, has created a platform that allows health care workers’ families to connect with college students who provide child care and pet-sitting services and run household errands.

Co-founders Sara Lederman and Sruthi Shankar, and other medical students on their team usually would have been in class or completing clinical rotations to finish their degrees. That routine has been upended since the U closed campus to combat the virus. Now, instead of online schoolwork, MN Covidsitters acts as both a form of field work and as meeting a need in the medical community during the outbreak.

“As medical students, we are in this unique position of not quite being doctors but also not quite being members of the general public,” Lederman said. “A lot of us see ourselves in the front-line workers who are encountering this virus.”

So far, 215 student volunteers have signed up and 91 families have been matched, Lederman said.

After coming up with the idea in mid-March, the MN Covidsitters team began by using spreadsheets to connect families and student volunteers, using criteria such as location, allergy concerns or gender preferences.

As word got around, demand for their services surged. In about three days, the nonprofit received hundreds of responses — families needed help and students were willing.

“I thought it was going to be a simple [list], pretty straightforward, not a lot of bells and whistles but it became very clear very quickly that … we had tapped into a real need,” Lederman said. “This is much bigger than we thought.”

That’s when Clinician Nexus’ expertise came along to help their cause — for free.

As a technology-based startup that aids health-teaching institutions, Clinician Nexus already largely had the infrastructure in place, said CEO Katrina Anderson.

“I’m encouraged by these people, and it’s a privilege to be even helpful to them at all,” she said.

The tech startup has since developed an online platform to help connect families with students, which also simplifies the student verification process and anonymizes family names. The help has streamlined communication and the ability to make matches, said Jack Doenges, director of app development for MN Covidsitters.

About three students are assigned per family to help with scheduling and to mitigate infection risks, Lederman said. Any volunteer can work with only one family to limit contact. If there is a suspected or known positive case of COVID-19 in the family or with a volunteer, they cannot continue the program.

But this also means that there are more families — about 89 — seeking help than there are volunteers right now, Lederman said.

In the weeks ahead, Lederman anticipates an increasing demand for services. The goal now is to become more robust by adding volunteers and expanding their network so that they can help as many families as possible, she said.

“We don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last and how long our volunteer services are going to be needed,” she said. “The first priority is really making sure we deliver on our promises that we make to our community and personally.” 

Caitlin Anderson (caitlin.anderson@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.