Volunteer Vaccinators: The people power behind America’s vaccine rollout

Volunteer clinicians working at Covid-19 vaccine clinic

At this moment, 47 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus. So far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 330 million doses have been administered nationally since December. This massive number continues to grow. As a comparison, in 2019 approximately 194 million doses of the flu vaccine were administered over the course of the entire year.

Many people are surprised to learn that behind the scenes, volunteers made our national vaccine rollout possible.

The U.S. federal government pays for the vaccine, but it is up to municipalities and health systems to fund and staff operations with licensed professionals and support teams. In addition to health care systems leveraging their employees, in many regions of the country volunteer nurses and physicians independently donate hours of service and personal time to support this impressive effort.

Nationally, many vaccine clinics, regardless of the host or sponsor, are 100 percent run by volunteers. And many of the volunteers are also front-line health care workers who experienced the worst consequences of the pandemic.

An Unstoppable Force

“When this all first started, we didn’t know if we were going to die,” confesses Dr. Timothy Watt, Emergency Medicine Physician for Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. “No one backed down. It brought our team closer. Despite all the stress and uncertainty, we made it through the year. And even after all that, our colleagues still had the strength to come together once again and make our vaccine clinic happen. It’s remarkable and I’m personally grateful.”

At press time, the city of San Diego has achieved 88.9 percent of its vaccination goal. Sharp Health’s vaccine clinics have contributed significantly to the city’s success. Notably, Sharp Health administered more vaccines in San Diego County than any other organization in the area with 285,500 fully vaccinated citizens and 595,003 total doses administered.

“Our clinic is completely run by volunteers,” says Dr. Greg Apel, Chief of Medicine for Sharp Cornado Hospital, which is also located in San Diego County. “The vaccine clinic is a massive demonstration of commitment by our physicians and nursing staff. Almost half of our nurses and techs volunteered. Our team was pushed to the brink during the pandemic. They don’t have a lot of free time on their hands but they are still willing to help our community by getting as many people vaccinated as possible.

“It’s remarkable to see so many professionals step up for our community. This has been a shining beacon. Staff from all ranks have donated many hours of service, including our CEO,” adds Dr. Apel. “Others who are not clinicians are on-site doing important jobs like calming anxiety and answering questions.”

Answering the Call

The work of clinic volunteers goes beyond injections. To ensure efficiency and safety, a variety of roles must be filled. From parking logistics to clinician supervision, the number of volunteers required to run a large vaccine clinic operation can be in the hundreds. And it’s not only actively practicing clinicians who are reporting for duty. Retirees and licensed health care professionals who work in higher education and business are essential to vaccine efforts nationwide as well.

“It’s my duty to help,” says Cathy McDowell, Chief Operating Officer for Synergy Health Partners. “It is important work, but it’s also really fun.” McDowell, who is a licensed nurse, volunteered for several eight-hour weekend shifts at her local vaccine center in Blacksburg, Va. last spring.

“I encountered a few patients who were nervous because they don’t like shots, but most people were elated as they took this big step away from the pandemic,” said McDowell. “More than one patient cried tears of joy. It was emotional and overall, a very positive experience.”

McDowell’s colleague Dr. Douglas Webster, Chief Medical Officer for Synergy Health Partners, also volunteered as a Covid-19 vaccine provider in Vero Beach, Fla. “The mantra ‘We’re in this together’ has been used a lot in the last year and a half,” says Webster. “This was my opportunity to live up to that notion. Covid-19 is the biggest public health crisis of my lifetime, and I am grateful for the chance to help.”

As we progress toward life with a greatly reduced threat of Covid-19 in the United States, it will require a continued, unified effort by all health care professionals and communities to control the virus.

“So many of my professional friends and colleagues were on the front lines of this terrible pandemic,” remarks McDowell. “The dedication and sacrifices they demonstrated are admirable beyond words. For clinicians like me who work in business, volunteer opportunities give us a chance to express our gratitude. Many patients thanked me after I give them their shot. I have no doubt that I am more grateful than they are.”

The outpouring of volunteer support was so substantial that in many areas of the country, people were put on waiting lists or outright denied the opportunity to help. “This is a good problem to have,” admits Dr. Watt. “Nobody is offended when they are informed that all volunteer shifts are filled. And frankly, we’re not surprised, either. We’re proud. Proud of our team, our community, and our profession.”

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