Andrea Zuercher: What I experienced while volunteering at a Lawrence COVID-19 vaccination event (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Andrea Zuercher, of Lawrence, works as the chief copy editor for a health policy journal based in Washington, D.C.

Originally published by Kansas Reflector on March 23, 2021:

I drove into the county fairgrounds parking lot and navigated to an open space. A woman pulled up behind me. “Is this where volunteers are parking?” she asked, through her mask. I replied, through mine, “I’m a volunteer, and I’m parking here.”

As other cars streamed in, I walked toward a large building at the north end of the fairgrounds to join others similarly dressed in layers and wearing comfortable shoes. It was a Friday in late February, and we were arriving for our volunteer shift at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic.

Dozens of us received yellow ID tags, assignments, and fluorescent safety vests, along with an orientation and safety briefing, and learned that second Pfizer shots were being given that day.

Orange cones inside the dirt-floored building marked vaccine administration lanes, with tables staffed by medical volunteers wearing blue vests. After a welcome from health department officials, we fanned out to await the first arrivals.

I was an “outdoor monitor” to help drivers navigate to a 15- or 30-minute parking spot where they would remain until it was certain they were not having a reaction to their vaccine. Cars streamed past as they drove around the outer edge of the fairgrounds toward the building at the center.

It was chilly and overcast, but we soon warmed up as cars began emerging from the shots area for us to direct to several lanes of diagonal parking (which I recognized as the fairgrounds RV park). We parked them three to a lane and handed the drivers information about possible side effects and, most important, a label with details about the day’s dose to affix to their vaccine cards.

The people inside the cars — one, sometimes two — were grateful to have received their second vaccination. They thanked us for volunteering. Some took selfies. After their designated wait times, they waved and smiled through their masks as we released them.

Most were in the 15-minute lanes. Every so often, the traffic monitor at the entrance to our area would radio the monitor at the other end that a 30-minute car was coming, to be directed to a special lane for the longer wait. We kept people who had indicated sensitivity to a vaccine ingredient, or had had a past reaction, twice as long to make sure they were OK. During my four hours on duty that day, paramedics were called only once for a person who did not feel well.

At the end of our shift, when all of the cars had gone, we trooped back into the community building, turned in our vests, scanned out and headed home.

I hadn’t known what to expect when I signed up to volunteer at this event. I didn’t know what job I would be given. I didn’t care. All I knew is that I would be doing something.

It had been nearly a year of worry and fear for my own and others’ health, fuming about political incompetence and botched responses, carrying heavy sadness over the mounting death toll, experiencing upheaval as normal activity abruptly stopped, and learning new ways to meet with friends via video and to get things I needed. It was also a year of revelation about what seemed like the utter selfishness of so many people who refused to do even simple things like wearing a mask to protect others.

I underestimated the joy and sense of purpose I would feel helping medical volunteers deliver not only a lifesaving, frankly miraculous dose of vaccine but also a shot of hope. Hope that the end might be in sight. Finally, there was a way for people who weren’t medical professionals to give time and effort to help bring the pandemic to an end.

The clinic here in Douglas County happens twice a week, as health department staff are joined by growing numbers of volunteers. Without us, the officials said, these events would not result in several hundred people being vaccinated each day. As they have worked the kinks out of the procedure, they’ve steadily increased the number of doses administered. By mid-March, daily vaccinations numbered in the thousands.

I’m going out to the fairgrounds again whenever my work allows. Each tired muscle is a price I will happily pay for the knowledge that sometimes hope looks like a masked, windblown volunteer wearing a bright yellow vest and carrying a two-way radio.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. For information, including how to submit your own commentary, click here. To submit a letter to the Lawrence Times, click here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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