Throughout the pandemic year, superheroes have emerged in all walks of life. In 2021, some of the most visible heroes are Loudoun’s super vaccinators—on a mission to get shots in arms and restore a sense of normalcy.
These jab kings and queens include volunteer and career personnel from Loudoun’s Combined Fire and Rescue Services and volunteers from Loudoun’s Medical Reserve Corps, working together to get the job done. As thousands of people roll up their sleeves at the county’s point of dispensing (POD) at Dulles Town Center each day, these front-liners handle reactions from tears of joy to extreme anxiety with humor, compassion and even a song or two.
“All I dream about is giving shots.”
Advanced EMT Jeremy Mader sits at the top of the fire and rescue system’s in-house vaccine leaderboard along with firefighter/paramedic Joel Sauer. Mader and Sauer are career first responders, but they’re joined by dozens of the system’s volunteers in the vaccination effort.
“It’s very rewarding because everyone wants to get back to normal, and this is the best way to do it so we can reach herd immunity,” Mader said. “I’m trying to jab as many arms as I possibly can.”
Mader has given more than 4,000 vaccinations since starting at the Dulles POD in February. He has spent almost every day off from his regular assignment at the Kirkpatrick Farms Fire and Rescue Station at the site. Mader is usually at Dulles three or four days a week depending on his schedule at the station and averages 150 to 200 injections a day.
“I’m at the point now where all I dream about is giving shots,” Mader said. After two months, the super vaccinator recently started taking a few weekend days off.
Mader usually spends just 90 seconds or two minutes with each patient before they’re directed to a separate waiting area staffed by MRC volunteers. But he’s amazed at the connections he’s made with patients during what’s usually an intense and meaningful experience.
“It’s speed dating,” Mader said with a laugh.
Along with administering the shots, vaccinators also play a big role in comforting and calming nervous patients leading up to the jab. They’re usually also on the receiving end of lots of gratitude and relief.
“People have cried out of happiness,” Mader said.
Mader has experience working with people with special needs and earned kudo’s for creating fire and rescue’s autism comfort bags initiative last year. That project creates bags with STEM toys and other items to help individuals on the autism spectrum when they or a family member need emergency care. Known for his humor and caring presence, Mader is a go-to provider for special needs patients at the POD, working with parents and caregivers to get teens and adults with special needs relaxed and ready for their vaccination. One young man on the autism spectrum returned to the POD for his second dose with a Valentine’s gift bag for Mader.
“It takes empathy and education,” Mader said.
“A team effort”
As a cooperative effort among three county agencies, the Dulles POD has turned into a well-oiled machine in recent weeks. Logistics at the site are overseen by Loudoun’s Department of Emergency Management, while the Loudoun County Health Department is in charge of clinical operations including handling and receiving of the vaccines and providing vaccinators and support personnel through the county’s Medical Reserve Corps.
The county’s Fire and Rescue System is the third prong in effort, with EMTs and paramedics providing much of the muscle for getting shots in arms. LC-CFRS also is in charge of efforts to vaccinate homebound Loudouners and individuals at long-term care and rehab facilities.
“It’s a great team effort,” said Dr. John Morgan, medical director for Loudoun County Combined Fire and Rescue Services. “It’s evolved so we can leverage the advantages that each agency has in terms of operations and processes. … We’re all working together and taking advantage of our various talents to get the job done.”
With more than 4,000 people going through each day, vaccinators are seeing a range of emotions from folks coming in for their jabs.
“As a general rule, for people who receive the vaccine—it’s a big moment,” Morgan said. “We’ve been dealing with the pandemic for well over a year now, and there have been a lot of bad things as a result. This is one of the positive things where people feel hopeful that there are some signs of recovery occurring.”
As the county pushed to ramp up vaccination efforts, it created a program allowing LC-CFRS volunteer EMTs and paramedics to be paid as contractors at the vaccination site, although some first responders have declined compensation.
“That has helped boost the numbers where we’ve really needed to step up,” Morgan said.
“We’re here to do a job.”
That contract program has allowed Brittney Turnbow, a volunteer EMT with Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad since 2017, to become another of the county’s vaccination superstars. The temporary county contract has allowed Turnbow, who currently works several part-time jobs as she pursues a full-time career in law enforcement, to be at the vaccination site five or six days a week.
For Turnbow, the joy of patients, the sense of camaraderie between Loudoun’s career and volunteer fire and rescue personnel and MRC volunteers and support from Morgan and emergency services Battalion Chief Jamie Cooper have helped her push through the long days and grow as a young first responder.
“We’re very blended, and we’re here to do a job,” she said. “I’m getting to learn from advanced EMTs and paramedics. It’s a very positive environment. … I take a lot of pride in what I do, and I feel like that is recognized. I’m grateful for that.”
“It’s something we needed to do”
In addition to working with the MRC volunteers to get shots in arms at the Dulles POD, LC-CFRS has taken the lead role in providing vaccinations for homebound Loudouners and residents at the county’s long-term care and rehab facilities. While the numbers are much smaller than at the POD, it’s especially meaningful for patients, Morgan said.
Volunteer paramedic Nick Croce came out of retirement to become a vaccinator for both the Dulles POD and homebound patients. Croce was a 20-year volunteer at Philomont Fire Station, providing life support care across western Loudoun for two decades. When he heard about a need for trained first responders in vaccination efforts, he jumped at the chance.
“It’s something that we needed to do,” Croce said. “I just couldn’t bear sitting on my backside while other people were doing things”
Croce usually spends three days a week at the Dulles POD and also does calls for homebound residents.
“[Residents] are feeling a sense of optimism that they haven’t felt for a long time. They’re very appreciative of what the department of health and the department of fire and rescue are doing,” Croce said. “It’s probably one of the more gratifying things that I’ve done.”
Croce, 71, occasionally busts out his repertoire of old-school songs for nervous patients.
“Sometimes you get somebody who’s all tensed up, and I sing them a song and that kind of relaxes them. Before they know it, they’re sitting down in the waiting area.”
Serving homebound patients has also been especially rewarding, he said. The well-staffed setup at the Dulles POD has a separate waiting area where another group of volunteers watch for reactions post-vaccination. But at in-home vaccination visits, EMS personnel sit with homebound patients for 15 to 30 minutes. It’s a chance to talk with and get to know people, many of whom have had limited contact with others since the start of the pandemic.
“To them, I think it’s more than just 15 minutes,” Croce said. “When you’re responding for emergency care, you’re coming into people’s houses probably at the worst time in their life,” Croce said. “When you come in for this, it’s a completely different experience.”
“Getting past the wall”
The desire to keep serving and making connections has also motivated many volunteers with the Medical Reserve Corps overseen by the county’s health department. The MRC, which includes retired and active medical personnel giving shots and non-medical volunteers filling numerous support roles at the busy POD, also has its share of vaccination superstars.
Mildred O’Meara-Lett retired as an intensive care nurse at Inova Loudoun two years ago after a 40-year career in critical care. But O’Meara-Lett started volunteering at the hospital right after her retirement, and when she heard about the need for trained vaccinators, she jumped at the chance. O’Meara-Lett is one of MRC’s early vaccinators, starting in January at the county’s first vaccination site in a warehouse space in Sterling and then moving to the full-scale site at Dulles Town Center.
“I love interacting with the people and also the volunteers. Each person has their own path to why they volunteer, but all of them are really giving people and the atmosphere is very positive,” she said. “It’s a very satisfying way of giving back to the community.”
With decades of critical care experience, O’Meara-Lett is deeply familiar with the sense of connecting with patients at intense moments that many medical professionals and first responders understand. For many people, the past year has been a period of creating distance and experiencing isolation. At the POD, the interaction with patients for vaccinators is brief but intense, and there are real opportunities for connection in that short window of time.
“You’re able to get past that wall and connect with people. … A lot of people feel a profound sense of joy, relief—I don’t know how to describe it,” she said. “You really don’t get the chance to do something like that much in life.”
Vaccinations are open to all residents age 16 and older. To pre-register and be put on the list for an appointment, go to vaccinate.virginia.gov or call 1-877-829-4682. People seeking COVID-19 vaccination may also look for appointments at pharmacies and other locations in the region at vaccinefinder.org. That is a separate sign up, since those organizations do not coordinate their registrations with the Health Department.