John Budesky, Hanover County’s administrator, scanned the cavernous room of his county’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday morning as humanity buzzed around him.
Dozens of people — countless volunteers of all ages, veteran doctors and wide-eyed nursing students, Hanover residents and safety personnel — moved in waves like a well-oiled machine throughout the open space, a vacant former grocery store off U.S. Route 1 in Ashland.
On this rainy morning, as Budesky watched the potentially lifesaving measures happening around him, his thoughts turned to his late father. Budesky’s father died just last month from COVID-19, a shocking loss that confounds him still.
As volunteers in vests ushered people to tables for their first or second vaccinations, Budesky wondered aloud about the what-ifs.
What if his father, who lived out of state, had been vaccinated? What if the vaccines had arrived earlier? And what if those around his father could’ve been vaccinated and not spread the virus in the first place?
The thoughts are heartbreaking. But they underscore, at the deepest personal level, why Budesky and other county leaders are stretching vaccination efforts and resources as much as they can.
Anything less, Budesky knows all too well, could be devastating.
As of Wednesday, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s COVID-19 online dashboard, Hanover has had a total of 7,136 COVID-19 cases and 147 deaths.
In a little more than two weeks, the number of vaccinations administered in Hanover has jumped nearly 41%. VDH reported Wednesday that 44,328 vaccines have been administered, compared with 31,468 as of March 9.
Countywide, 30,902 people have received one dose and 16,155 are fully vaccinated with both shots, a 30% increase in full vaccinations during that same two-week span.
County officials attribute the jump, in part, to their targeted efforts to reach people who are age 65 and older.
Hanover set up a call center Jan. 20 to help residents who might have had trouble reaching the local health department to sign up for vaccinations. Since then, the center has fielded at least 14,526 calls. It’s open Monday through Friday, and volunteers at the center help callers get scheduled for vaccinations.
The call center has worked, said Deputy County Administrator Jim Taylor. As of this week, more than 70% of those in the county who are 65 and older have been vaccinated — a goal that county officials hoped to reach because higher numbers bring an area closer to herd immunity, when enough people are immune to a disease that it slows or stops the spread.
“We were finding that a lot of seniors — we were just missing them,” Taylor said.
The residents weren’t getting or seeing emails from county or health department staff workers, and when those workers would call residents directly, the residents wouldn’t answer the phone because they didn’t recognize the numbers.
Taylor said it became clear that the county needed a way to field calls from residents.
“It’s not working ... if we call them,” he said, so residents or their loved ones have been asked to reach out to the call center directly to get on a schedule.
“That’s worked really well,” Taylor said. “[Residents] don’t have to wait for us to call.”
The vaccination clinic, located at located at 140 Junction Drive in Ashland, is open Monday through Friday. The daily goal is 1,000 vaccinations, though more can be administered if there are more vaccine doses available, county officials say. Overall, the goal is to fully vaccinate 61,600 people — 70% of the county’s adult population.
At the clinic, the process is fluid: Residents stop at a registration area first and then move to a waiting area to fill out paperwork if needed. From there, they get vaccinated, then wait 15 to 30 minutes to make sure there’s no reaction to the shot. During that time, those getting their first shot can register for a second shot.
Vaccinations at the clinic are free.
For disabled residents and those age 60 and older, the county offers Hanover DASH, which provides transportation to medical appointments and, now, vaccination appointments. The usual DASH fees — $6 each way — are being temporarily waived.
Kimberly McIntyre is program head for J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College’s practical nursing program at the downtown campus. She brings her junior and senior practical nursing students to volunteer at the clinic on Wednesdays and Fridays as part of their clinical rotation requirements.
“Being able to save some lives — students are actually doing it in real time instead of waiting until they graduate,” she said.
“They’re seeing their hard work pay off,” and it motivates them to want to do more, she added. “What better way than to do it for real?”
Chickahominy Health District Nurse Manager Karen Stalzer said those community partnerships — with county and state agencies, local colleges and universities, and more — are the foundation upon which the program succeeds.
“This is an incredible feat to see all of our community partners come together for the betterment of our community,” Stalzer said, adding that she hopes those partnerships continue after the pandemic subsides.
She looked around the room and called the scene before her “the definition of public health.”
“We can do so much good for our community,” she said. “It definitely takes a village.”