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Coronavirus

Volunteers Are A Vital Part Of Missouri’s Massive COVID-19 Vaccination Effort

Volunteer Robert Mertzlufft wears a red vest so patients can easily find him when he works at the St. Luke's COVID-19 vaccine clinic inside the Chesterfield Mall.
Sarah Fentem
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Volunteer Robert Mertzlufft wears a red vest so patients can easily find him when he works at the St. Luke's COVID-19 vaccine clinic inside the Chesterfield Mall.

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine can be a stressful experience, and sometimes all a person needs to get through it is a little help.

That was the case for René Butler of St. Louis when she recently got the vaccine. Butler was a bit wary, but she came to a recent St. Louis Community College vaccination event with her friend Karen Clay.

Butler laughed with Clay about being there, but mentioned she was afraid of needles.

“Are you gonna hold my hand?” Butler jokingly asked one worker.

Butler and Clay sat on plastic chairs inside the dark parking garage and watched a National Guard medic travel down the line of patients, taking shots out of a fanny pack and sticking them into arms. They started singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to distract themselves as the medic moved closer.

Getting the shot only took two seconds, but it was an emotional moment. Butler started crying. Soon, volunteer Liv Bunde crouched next to her plastic chair and offered her a tissue.

The jobs assigned to many volunteers at Missouri’s COVID-19 vaccination sites aren’t glamorous. On a given day, volunteers will stand for hours, shepherding people through lines, helping people fill out medical forms or wiping down pens with disinfecting wipes.

But the hundreds of volunteers are vital to pulling off a public health effort almost unprecedented in scale: vaccinating the state’s 6 million residents against a virus that has killed more than 9,000 Missourians and brought life to a temporary halt.

A historic task

“I wanted to be a part of the solution and help people get the vaccine,” Bunde said as she stacked clipboards and medical release forms on a folding table. "I think that’s the case for most of us.”

Bunde, a member of the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa, spent March volunteering at vaccination sites in Missouri. She was excited to connect with people after a long, lonely year.

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Sarah Fentem
Volunteer Liv Bunde works at a state-run mass COVID-19 vaccination site in St. Louis in March.

“There’s a gentleman over there who’s deaf, and I learned sign language in college,” she said. “So it’s been really nice to help people and use our skills. … It’s something people have waited over a year for now.”

Health officials compare the massive worldwide vaccination effort to historic projects like the race to put astronauts on the moon. Doctors have long pointed to mass vaccination as the key way to end the coronavirus pandemic.

Vaccination clinics can sometimes feel like an airport during the holiday rush. Lines are long, and there can be logistical snags along the way, like when people show up without an appointment. Volunteers help keep things moving.

Thousands of people showed up at the event where Bunde volunteered. During her shift, it started to look like rain, and other volunteers helped shepherd long lines of people inside the parking garage to keep people dry.

New problems

More than one-third of Missouri residents have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Statewide, health workers are giving 40,000 shots a day statewide.

The federal government is spending billions on developing lifesaving vaccines. But state and local governments, health systems and clinics have largely been left to fend for themselves when it comes to distributing and giving the shots. They don’t have enough people to do the job.

That means that volunteers are vital, said Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

“As with everything in the pandemic, a change in one thing creates challenges in another,” he said. “As we start to expand more and more vaccine, and start having more and more of these large vaccine events, then the rate-limiting step becomes people that can actually deliver the vaccine.”

Vaccinators are distributing shots at hospitals, clinics and pop-up sites in parking lots and sports arenas. Those sites need volunteers with clinical experience to actually administer the vaccine. But they also need people who can help guide and reassure those in line for the vaccine.

“COVID-19 has impacted every single person that lives in the St. Louis area,” said Robert Mertzlufft, who volunteers a few days a week at a St. Luke’s Hospital clinic inside Chesterfield Mall. “And so the impact that we are making at the vaccine clinic is really incredible and touches everybody.”

Volunteer Liv Bunde's usual jobs at mass vaccination sites aren't complicated or glamorous. On a recent day in March 2021, she was organizing clipboards.
Sarah Fentem
Volunteer Liv Bunde's usual jobs at mass vaccination sites aren't complicated or glamorous. In March, she was organizing clipboards.

Like all the volunteers, Mertzlufft wears bright red so people can find him easily. During his shifts, he keeps people moving through the lines and helps them fill out medical forms.

“Sometimes it may be a situation, and I can relate to this, where they forgot their reading glasses,” he said. “And so they can't really see the form.

“We’ll sit down, ask them the questions, check the box for them and have them sign the form,” said Mertzlufft, of St. Charles. “There's just something really satisfying you really feel like you're helping people.”

People see his red vest and recognize him even when he isn’t at the clinic, he said.

When the coronavirus arrived in Missouri last spring, St. Luke’s sent volunteers home, said Kate Myers, the volunteer coordinator at St. Luke’s Hospital.

Last summer, they slowly began to return.

“I'm so blessed to work with them,” she said. “They were willing to come, even before the vaccine came.”

Patients’ experiences getting vaccinated can inspire them to help out at the clinics, she said. More volunteers have stepped up since the start of the pandemic.

“We've actually had folks come in and want to volunteer because of the experience they had with our vaccine clinic.”

‘A tough year’

Volunteers can meet hundreds of new people a day. Even if they’re just with a patient for a few minutes, their moment together can feel powerful.

Some people, like René Butler, start crying after they receive their shot, Bunde said. The pandemic has been hard on everyone and receiving the vaccine can be cathartic, she said.

“We’ve been going through a tough year,” she said. “It’s just been really nice and fulfilling to make sure and see these people really excited for this vaccine and what we’re doing.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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