People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

“History in the making:” Thousands of volunteers turn out for Oklahoma’s COVID-19 vaccine effort

Local health officials say that vaccine clinics would be impossible without the volunteers who did everything from administering shots to monitoring bathrooms.

  • Catherine Sweeney

Vaccines on a shelf won’t usher the end of a pandemic, and getting them into arms takes work.

Oklahoma has administered nearly 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Like all other states, it has done so free of charge to residents. That is possible largely because thousands of volunteers pitched into the effort.

Diana Schaeffer retired as a public health nurse in October, as case counts began surging. She knew first-hand how exhausting the pandemic response would be for health department workers across the state; she was chief of nursing at the State Department of Health for 14 years.

“When the vaccines come out, I see this is hope — a lifeline, so to speak. And I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something to help.’”

She worked with the Oklahoma City-County health department to start administering shots. She said that it’s rare — in volunteering or in any line of work — to immediately see the difference you’re getting to make.

“It was also interesting to see how relieved they were after they got that shot, even though, yes, we had the jokes of, ‘When will this chip activate?’ and all the other nonsense, you know,” she said. “And I’d play along with them. I said, Oh, ‘It’ll be in about three or four hours.’ I said, ‘Then, we’ll be able to track you.’ But a lot of them were relieved.”

Other volunteers went through the Medical Reserve Corps, a national initiative. Dominique Baradaran is Oklahoma County’s Medical Reserve Corps volunteer and planning coordinator.

“The Medical Reserve Corps was formed after 9/11 in response to 9/11,” she said. “It was to basically have a volunteer base of people that are credentialed and background checked so that if something happened, you know, we can call upon these individuals and we know that they’re medically trained.”

The program operates statewide in Oklahoma, and has been around for a little under a decade. It usually activates after natural disasters, or serves public health initiatives like flu shots or the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon.

The state rolled out Points of Dispensing Sites, or PODS, this winter, serving only a few hundred people at a time. In the early stages, only health care workers qualified. As more residents eligibility broadened, the clinics began catering to thousands of people a day. Baradaran says volunteers were critical.

“We literally could not do our PODS without them,” she said. “We just don’t have the manpower to do it.”

She says that registration shot up in the pandemic’s wake.

“In Oklahoma County, we have a little over 3,900 volunteers,” she said. “And that’s just Oklahoma County. Statewide, we have about 9,000 volunteers that are registered. But before COVID — or before the vaccination PODS more media attention — I probably had about two thousand volunteers.”

One of the existing volunteers, who started just before the pandemic was retired Tulsa dermatologist, Dr. Douglas Vaughn.

“Of course, I had no idea it would be pandemic related at that time, but I thought anywhere they needed some help, you know, I might be able to spend a few days with them,” he said. “I had some experience with volunteering during the flood over in the Sand Springs Town and Country neighborhood.”

The corps recruits both health workers and non-health workers. Vaughn said that although he spent much of the time actually giving shots, duty called in a few different ways.

“I even served as a bathroom monitor to make sure people didn’t have a problem getting in and out of the bathroom after they had an injection,” he said. “And we did parking and we did crowd control and things. I mean, we didn’t come out with our stethoscope around our neck and the white coat on.”

Tracey Zeeck was a non-medical volunteer in Oklahoma City. She said that desire to pitch in after something awful feels familiar.

“It had the same feeling after the bombing in Oklahoma City,” she said. “You know, we just all kind of volunteered. We set up a store in the Myriad out of all the free stuff people delivered to Oklahoma, and we organized that into a little shop one day. And then one time we drove around the perimeter overnight handing out food with the Jewish Federation. Just different things that you do, like, ‘There’s stuff that needs to be done. Let’s all go down and do it.’”

Each of the volunteers said something in the same vein: it was healing to see and feel hope for the first time in a long time.

Schaeffer said that after a year of isolating, the clinics offered a first opportunity to reconnect.
“You’re up close and personal with these people,” she said. “And this is at a time when you mask and keep six feet away. They’re sitting right next to me in my face, which they have to be. And that’s the closest I had been to strangers in quite a while, one right after the other. And they walk away from my little station with a vaccine in their arm and they’re probably going to be OK. Whereas maybe otherwise they wouldn’t.”
Vaughn said the excitement was palpable.

“I think the enthusiasm of some of the patients — wanting to take selfies with the vaccinator and things like that — just showed them how joyous many people were to finally see some hope in such a dire situation,” he said. “And it was just an honor to be part of that history making, in my opinion.”

Zeeck said that after a harrowing year when it seemed no one could get on the same page, volunteering at the clinics ushered in a needed sense of community.

“Being in a place where you’re seeing every race and every religion and every income level and every part of the city, and they’re all together and they’re all smiling in line, waiting to get this wonderful thing that’s going to get them back on their feet or getting back to work or getting back to health or whatever that the thing was for them,” she said. “Everyone shared a common hope and it made me feel so good to participate in that.”