In December 2020, the phone lines at the Clatsop County Public Health Department were jammed. Hundreds of questions came in every day from worried callers wanting to know about COVID-19 symptoms, isolation and testing. Other callers wanted to report businesses ignoring COVID-19 state mandates.
Jane Dunkin, Clatsop County human resources assistant and volunteer coordinator, had an idea: Put out a call for help.
“Within a week, the call center was set up with five desks with phones, and the first 38 people who responded were staffing it,” said Dunkin. “The number of volunteers grew to more than 200 in just two months.”
When vaccines became available in early 2021, the responses kept coming – this time from medical professionals wanting to donate their time at vaccination clinics.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Dunkin said. “People came from all four corners of the community.”
Today, more than two years later, Clatsop volunteers are still at work, although the pace and need has slowed. They finally have a chance to catch their breath and look back on those early months when few were sure what they were doing, only that it needed to be done.
Dr. Roy Little, a retired emergency room/primary care physician, was among the first to offer his skills. A child during the polio epidemic, he recalled parents “grabbing their kids by the ear and taking them for a shot.” For Little, 77, the COVID-19 pandemic was a similar moment in history, except this time he could help.
“We all know each other,” Little said. ”We felt like we were doing something. I’ve been here 30 years and was in the Air Force Medical Corps eight years prior to that. In the military, and also in my time running an office or working ER, you always train for events that fortunately never happen. This is one of those moments where the things you hoped you’d never see actually happened.”
Pharmacist Sue Stein can usually be found volunteering at the animal shelter, but when the pandemic made the shelter off-limits, COVID-19 clinics were a natural fit for her. Stein helped with dose preparation and also helped train nurses and doctors. She remembers the stress of working with a “fragile drug” that had to be stored at freezing temperatures and thawed for use in a carefully timed manner.
“Mostly, it was Moderna that came to the coast,” Stein said. “It was so valuable it was like gold. You didn’t want to waste anything. You really had to have this system to manage time. Who was going to show, who wasn’t going to show? How many walk-ins? One person signs up and the whole family shows up. How do you make it last? Don’t open the vial if you’re not going to use it all. It was a lot of mechanics.”
At times, some clinics bustled with more than 70 volunteers — medical professionals, greeters, schedulers, consent validators and people to help with technology needs.
Mark Chadwick, a semi-retired electrical engineer, stepped in at various times to fill each of the vital non-medical roles. It wasn’t easy, he said, especially in the beginning when many volunteers were scared to be around anyone, much less in a room filled with people.
“At first, we were this cog in the machine and we didn’t understand what was going on, but at the end we got it,” Chadwick said. “The world was on fire and we were trying to do our part. We all felt we were doing something positive, making a difference. We took it very seriously.”
That shared desire to help was the one thing that got many volunteers through the hard times – some harder than others.
Stein remembers shivering in the cold during clinics at Seaside High School.
“It was always a giggle when someone asked, ‘How many layers are you wearing today?’” Likewise at the Clatsop County Fairgrounds, where Stein said it was so cold “the needles would not stay connected to the syringes.” And when the clinics attracted 600 to 700 people a day, “Well, that was just bananas.”
Other situations were not easily laughed off.
As a doctor with decades of practice, Little expected resistance to the vaccine. But he didn’t anticipate how complicated hesitancy would be.
The summer of 2021 was the toughest for volunteers, Little said. That was when many people got vaccinated because their employers required it. They did it to keep their jobs, and not everyone was happy about it.
“We became the enemy instead of the helpers,” Little said. “Some of my friends said, ‘I’m done. I’m not going back.’ But by and large, there are a lot of volunteers who put up with a little guff, and they’ve been plugging away.”
Little and other volunteers prefer to remember the good – the hours, days and weeks when they showed up to do what they could to help their community stay safe.
They take pride in knowing they donated more than 17,000 hours – about $500,000 worth of labor – to Clatsop County’s COVID-19 response.
For Dunkin, who’s been in the thick of it from day one, the memory she’ll carry is one of community coming together. “The camaraderie and the sense of fulfillment, the feeling that you were back with people doing something and helping people — it was so amazing,” Dunkin said. “We’ve built relationships through this. You find out things about people you didn’t know. You find a common ground. It’s really been wonderful.”