With Volunteer Help, Lewis County Pulls Off Biggest Vaccination Effort Yet

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Splashed with a new coat of colorful paint, the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds was bustling Sunday, not with livestock and kettle corn fans, but with caregivers, community volunteers and residents waiting in line for the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. 

Under a sign reading “beef and dairy pavilion,” drivers pulled through a large barn to get their dose. In a nearby building that normally showcases quilts, Providence caregivers pulled doses into syringes and shuffled them through the rain, where patients rolled their windows down and their sleeves up. 

Providence has set up similar events in Thurston County, but nothing to this scale, according to Lisa Humphrey, director of quality, safety and human resources outsourcing. In total, 1,253 people were vaccinated at the all-day event. Lewis County Public Health Director J.P. Anderson said everything went better than planned, largely due to “the man with the plan,” Ed Mund, Lewis County public health’s emergency preparedness coordinator 

Mund had just a week to turn the fairgrounds into a health clinic. Sunday morning, briefing volunteers, county officials and caregivers, he relayed that “basically, this is dress rehearsal and opening night simultaneously. So we’ll be taking lots of notes.”

Lewis County has trained for emergencies like this, but it’s all been theoretical, Anderson said. And on such short notice, it wouldn’t have been possible without the community’s help.

“This event could not have happened without our partners at United Way of Lewis County and Twin City Rotary,” Anderson said. 

Just two days prior, United Way of Lewis County Executive Director Debbie Campbell got Anderson’s call asking for help. 

“He said, ‘can you guys hit the ground running and try to get volunteers for Sunday?’” Campbell said. “And I said ‘this Sunday?’”

On short notice, United Way pulled together about 35 volunteers, plus 15 from Twin Cities Rotary Club. Campbell recalled her organization aiding the county’s recovery after the devastating 2007 flood, saying the push to get Lewis County vaccinated and end the pandemic has been their biggest emergency effort since. 

And they’re in it for the long haul, Campbell said. 

“The community is so amazing when it comes to things like this. And our volunteers out here today said, ‘I want to come back next (time),” Campbell said. “It was so good to watch people come through and be so happy, just laughs and smiles, so excited to get their shot.”

Centralia College medical assistant students also provided assistance, with several of them actually administering the vaccine. 

“We’re using it as a training and educational opportunity for them as well,” Humphrey said. “It takes a village. Literally.”

Standing under the main barn Sunday afternoon, Alison Puckett, with Lewis County Public Health and Social Services, confirmed that most volunteers who had finished their shift asked when the next vaccination event was so they could return.

“That’s great. That’s huge, because we will need their help,” Puckett said.

Although Sunday’s volunteers were mainly folks who had worked with United Way before, the organization has already put out the call to community members for help in future vaccination events. Officials don’t know when the next fairgrounds event will take place. It depends on when more doses roll into Lewis County from the state. But when that does happen, the fairgrounds has the capacity to expand from a two-lane operation to an eight-lane one.

Volunteers’ desire to return was partially fueled by the atmosphere on Sunday. Despite the rain and near-freezing temperatures, those involved described a feeling of hope as they helped stamp out a pandemic that has taken over 400,000 American lives and abruptly halted a normal way of life. 

Puckett described drivers on their way out of the fairgrounds waving, giving a thumbs up and even blowing kisses. 

“I think just everybody is so darn happy to get people vaccinated so we can get our little piece of the world back together,” Campbell said. 

Chris Thomas, a Providence spokesman who spent 12 hours at the fairgrounds, said driving home he felt like he was on “Cloud Nine.” 

“Just incredible, just the comments of people who came through were just resoundingly heart-filling,” he said. “These 60 Providence caregivers, from ER doctors to clinical nurses to medical assistants … These people have been doing COVID testing and taking care of COVID patients for 11 months, and beyond that they said this is such a need and such a spreading of hope that they signed up to volunteer today, and that’s just so heartwarming.”

Thomas reported that of the 1,253 individuals vaccinated, only one had a negative reaction. After driving to the post-vaccination parking lot where patients waited 15 minutes to monitor symptoms, the individual got flushed, but declined fluids offered by on-site medical responders and went home. Thomas said the reaction was likely due to anxiety. Of the thousands of COVID-19 vaccines distributed by Providence Southwest Washington, Thomas said only two patients have had adverse reactions, both minor.

After a handful of no-shows, one 10-dose vial was open but not completely used up. To avoid any wasted doses, officials were able to call the Centralia Police Department and local fire districts to get the doses into the arms of first responders who still needed a vaccine. 

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