Reflections on Covid: The Experience of a Vaccination Clinic Volunteer

A note from the Editor: For reasons of safety, the author of the piece that follows wishes to remain anonymous. In some parts of the U.S., public sentiment, often divided along the lines of political affiliation, bears a stark contrast to science-based medical recommendations.

The virus that has ravaged the world over the past year does not discriminate along such lines. Everyone is at risk, and the pandemic will not end so long as distrust and opposition continue to create fertile reservoirs.

For this reason, it is imperative that we show solidarity: support those who contribute to the many global vaccination programs, congratulate those who have been vaccinated, safeguard those who are still waiting their turn, protect those who, for medical reasons, may be ineligible, and above all show our humblest gratitude to those who volunteer their time and energy in these programs at no small personal risk.

Reflections on Covid: The Experience of a Vaccination Clinic Volunteer

For the past year, COVID-19 has consumed and confused us. We’ve had to create new normals, adjust, and try to power our way through shortages, fear, and uncertainty. The uncertainty created the fear, and the fear created the shortages. Hopefully, we have turned a corner.

Although I spent the vast majority of my life living in a big city, I’m now living in a mostly rural mountain state. Most of the time, it hasn’t required a huge adjustment, but COVID and the election year have made many of the differences blaringly apparent.

To add some context, I live in what is a fairly big metropolitan area for the state, but is a tiny fraction of the population that I’m used to. I’ve always noticed the relative lack of resources and variety available, especially in healthcare, but it was manageable. The other big difference is that this part of the country is very conservative, whereas I’m used to a more liberal and open-minded environment. Both differences were exacerbated by the pandemic.

At first, I was thankful for the smaller population. Where much of the country and bigger cities were counting daily COVID cases in the thousands, we were counting them in the single- to double-digits. I was able to keep my job at the university, merely working from home for the first couple months. I was able to find a second job working at a big-box-type hardware store, necessary because my university salary wasn’t close to a livable wage.

One of the first things I noticed, especially working at the store, was that people were very reluctant to wear masks. To me, this is a minimal inconvenience that helps protect me and others. It’s not really fun, but in the greater scheme of things, it’s no big deal. Living where most citizens resent government interference, both local and national, defiance was common.

As time went on, the number of cases, especially when you consider the percent of the population that was catching COVID, increased dramatically, and I was now living in a hot spot. Instead of people limiting their activities and wearing masks, they pushed to keep bars open until 2am. By now, fewer than 50% of the customers in the stores would wear a mask, regardless of the fact that corporate “store policy” required them. We were told, locally, not to enforce the corporate policy.

Now, one year into the pandemic, we have the ability to get vaccinated. I am lucky enough to be working for the nursing college at the university. They volunteered to coordinate and operate a vaccination clinic for what is termed the 1b students and faculty/staff. It seems that every county and state has a different definition of who is eligible. In our case, the university health department determined that there were approximately 1800 people who were either over 70 years old, had underlying medical conditions, or were BIPOC (Black, indigenous or people of color) that were eligible.

Many, many meetings later, the committee—headed by the Dean of the College of Nursing, in conjunction with the local affiliated community college, assorted departments at the University, including its health department—held the first of 2 vaccination clinics. Initially, one of the biggest concerns was that they only had 960 doses of vaccine available. What would they do if more than that number wanted to get vaccinated? That problem didn’t come to fruition, because only 810 people signed up to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

I was fortunate because I volunteered to help at the clinic. This moved me from my 1c status to a front- line worker, or 1a, so I would be able to receive a vaccination if there were left over doses. This wouldn’t have been possible if all of the doses available had been requested by 1b eligible people.

I think that the organizers and almost 200 volunteers that worked at the clinic did an amazing job. Nursing students gained experience giving shots, and those who weren’t advanced enough to give shots learned about patient education and helped observe those that received one to make sure there weren’t severe reactions. It was a great educational experience for them, and for me. I hope I get the opportunity to help at all future clinics.

Everything went smoothly, with kindness and compassion. Having taken a weekend off from my second job, I spent the day registering participants and received my first dose. I learned from planning sessions that all the facilities(government, hospital, etc.) tasked with dispensing vaccines were working cooperatively to make sure that those that needed doses, got them. It was fascinating to learn about how technically complex it was to dispense the vaccine. There are strict time limits to defrosting, diluting, and dispensing. They wanted to make sure that not a single dose was wasted and kept a close count at our clinic to make sure that only those doses that would be used immediately were prepared.

There is a lot of fear and uncertainty about the vaccine’s effectiveness and side-effects. I think time will be the determining factor on effectiveness, and everyone reacts differently to the vaccine, but I can tell you that I had a sore arm for a couple weeks. The normal reaction is just a day or two of soreness, but I felt it for much longer. It did affect my ability to get a good night’s sleep; but only felt like I overdid a workout. Co-workers that received a vaccination when I did mentioned fatigue, some soreness, or no reaction at all.

Three weeks later, we held the second vaccination clinic. Things went even more smoothly because we were experienced. Several graduate engineering students observed the first clinic and quantified how to maximize efficiency and eliminate bottlenecks that enabled us to reduce the clinic length by half. All but 6 of the people who received the first vaccination signed up to receive the second.

Again, I took the weekend off from my second job to participate. I’m glad I gave myself the extra day to recover, because I had a more severe reaction. I was gifted with the full complement of side effects: fever, chills, full body aches, and brain fog. Once I realized I was running a fever I took a couple of ibuprofen, and the symptoms started to resolve themselves within a few hours.

Even having had an uncomfortable day, I would still recommend getting a vaccine. There is so much we don’t know about this virus, about how effective the various vaccines will turn out to be long-term, and about their effectiveness against new strains; but getting vaccinated does bring some peace of mind: It lessens the severity of symptoms if you do subsequently catch COVID, and it starts our society on the journey toward normalcy.

Unfortunately, too many people are choosing not to get vaccinated. In my county, only 17% of those eligible have gotten their first dose, and 10%, the second dose. By comparison, 10% of the population has already contracted COVID. With 75% of the population completely unprotected, a return to normal doesn’t seem possible. The county health department has done an amazing job, along with the hospital systems, and the university, but the determining factor is the people themselves.

It’s up to each of us to do our part so we can help defeat COVID and return to normal. If you are eligible, get vaccinated. Until things are resolved, wear your masks when you’re out in public, regardless of whether you’ve already had COVID or been vaccinated. You could be a carrier without knowing it. Even if you aren’t feeling sick yourself, you can still transmit it to others. Until we are all safe, we have an obligation to do what we can to lessen the impact on others.

I wish I could say that on a state level, and, until the change in administration, on a national level, there has been clear and impactful direction. I’d love to say that I was proud of how my government reacted. Unfortunately, I can’t. However, the new national administration is recognizing the significance of COVID and trying to give clearer direction and lead by example.

More locally, my state’s new governor has eliminated the mask mandate. This is a decision I don’t understand – at all. Science has proven the importance of wearing a mask – for your own health, and the health of those around you. Again, it’s a big gain for a little inconvenience. Now, less than 25% of the customers in stores will wear one. To me, this is taking the importance of independence to a level of selfishness and belligerence. I understand that you don’t want the government mandating how you will live, but this is a matter of public safety…yours, your family’s, and your neighbors’.

I’m not sure if this is unique to the more rural “we come from the frontier west” mind set, or if it is more indicative of society as a whole. When did we stop caring about others? I think that COVID has showcased the best and the worst of people. There are those that have risen above self-importance to work hard to create these vaccines, healthcare professionals have worked tirelessly to care for those in need, and everyday people have tried to help neighbors who need extra attention.

On the flip side, it’s illuminated politicians who acted in self-interest before that of the greater good. There are some people who have line-jumped to receive a vaccine before they were entitled to it, thereby denying someone at greater risk. There is that saying that as we age, we just become more of our true selves. The same can be said of crisis. It brings out our true natures. This is a great opportunity to reflect on who you want to become.