“We gave away every single drop of vaccine we could find,” said Jennifer Smith and Kenny Evans of MHA Foundation, speaking on the community effort surrounding the Rim Country roll out of the COVID-19 vaccination drive that has been going on since doses started becoming available in Gila County.
The operation began months ago with community COVID-19 testing. As soon as that technology became available, the MHA Foundation dug in to get the work done. Volunteers and local medical office Ponderosa Family Care were on hand to facilitate the sample collection process. A drive-through approach was utilized to make the logistics flow as seamlessly and safely as possible.
The ever-changing nature of the virus dynamics, and the technology surrounding how to combat it, meant that any organization that wanted to make the community safer had to stay agile enough to roll with the many rapid changes in real-time.
This all went on in the early days of virus testing when such tests were hard to come by for any organization or group anywhere in the world. Through those efforts, almost 15% of the local population was tested for the virus within the first months of the pandemic.
Next came the vaccine. The vaccination plan came about due to Gila County reaching out to MHA Foundation to support vaccine coverage of eligible citizens who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks in their system. The organization and mobilization for this stage of the plan came on very quickly. With virtually no notice, volunteers sprang into action and got to work, putting in long days to create infrastructure and a plan of attack to smoothly execute the vaccination events. Smith and Evans are very clear that there was no way to complete a project of this magnitude without the help of amazing volunteers.
Thousands of volunteer hours have gone into the testing and vaccine events in both preparations and execution. “It is bringing the community together to make these things possible. What’s heartwarming was the joy behind it. Those volunteers were there because they wanted to be,” says Smith.
Through this humanitarian effort, an organized approach at each step of the cycle, Smith estimates that the area is becoming one of the most successfully vaccinated in the country. That is an impressive statement given that it was only a short month ago that Gila County was counted among the top in the nation for infection rates per capita.
The job included the logistical elements and the matter of helping overcome the general unease felt by some of the population in the early days of the vaccine. There was a good amount of education and information to share to help community members feel secure with vaccinating to make themselves and their families safer.
Community partners were also essential in ensuring the program was an enormous success. Smith emphasizes that without the help of media partners KMOG, KRIM, and The Payson Roundup, she doesn’t know how the work could have gotten done. She especially wants to give kudos to Debbie Ferrell, Steve Ray, Anne Fowler, and Chris Higgins. Smith notes that these leaders in media are typically behind the scenes and do the legwork and heavy lifting, rarely receiving thanks for the work they do. She wants to be sure they know how appreciated they are for helping to spread the word and know they share in the success of the vaccination efforts.
Additional community partners engaged in the project included the Gila County Sheriff’s Department, the Sheriff’s Posse, The Town of Payson Police Department, Police Volunteers, CERT Community Emergency Response Team Volunteers, The National Guard, Ponderosa Family Care, MHA Foundation Volunteers, and PUSD School District Staff. Smith notes that even Pizza Factory was generous enough to contribute a discount toward lunch for the volunteers serving the community project.
The 75-plus age group and essential workers were the first demographic targeted for vaccination in this initial round of doses. The six-day roll-out saw 1,118 vaccinations completed among these citizens. Volunteers worked to call community members within the eligible group, set appointments, help fill paperwork, handle logistics, direct traffic, and healthcare personnel and management. Many of these citizens, after having endured frustrating roadblocks that prevented them from getting the vaccine previously, could finally be vaccinated.
“We’re all working hard to figure it out together,” Smith says.