Volunteers are playing an integral role in the Wilkes County Health Department’s weekly drive-through COVID-19 vaccination clinics at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge in Wilkesboro.

Wilkes Health Department Rachel Willard said each first and second dose clinic is staffed by about 60 people, including about 25 volunteers.

Dr. Dariel Rathmel of North Wilkesboro is among the regular clinic volunteers. “This is a community effort,” said the retired internal medicine physician in between putting shots in arms at Thursday’s first dose clinic.

Rathmel said she volunteers because she believes it’s her civic responsibility and she wants to see everybody get vaccinated. “I’m loving every minute of it and am thrilled to see old patients of mine. And there’s such great teamwork here.”

She said the Wilkes Health Department has done a great job with the clinics. “It’s been a work in progress and we’re ironing out things as they arise.”

People frustrated over being unable to get connected when they dialed the health department number for a vaccination appointment earlier called Rathmel at home because they knew she was volunteering at the clinics. People working at the clinic Thursday said they heard it had become considerably easier to get an appointment.

Rathmel said she saw a car full of people from Greensboro with appointments at River’s Edge Thursday after they couldn’t get them in Greensboro.

“I just wish we had more vaccine. I wish we could do this 12 hours a day in shifts and vaccinate everyone who wants it,” she said.

Rathmel works as a member of one of the 10-12 two-person vaccination teams at each clinic. One member of each team gives shots while the other fills out forms with information collected on people vaccinated for the state. The two alternate between vaccinating people and filling out forms if both are licensed to give shots.

Information on each form includes the time, date and clinic site of the vaccination, lot number of the vaccine used, who gave the shot and in which arm it was given. People receiving the first dose are given a card with the date, time and place for their second dose.

Fran Cantrell of Millers Creek, a retired Wilkes school nurse, said knowing health care providers were caring for others while she isolated herself earlier in the pandemic helped motivate her to volunteer at the clinics. “It’s something I can do,” she added.

Cantrell and fellow volunteer Nancy Scroggs of Moravian Falls were a vaccination team at Thursday’s clinic. Scroggs is a retired nurse practitioner who teaches graduate level courses at the Chamberlain College of Nursing.

“Obviously, the need is great and it’s a critical time with the vaccine here. That means we’ve got to get it done. We’re a small place and we should be able to work together to accomplish this,” said Cantrell.

“It’s disappointing to see people not doing the things they should do to protect themselves, their families and others in the community,” she added. “We’ve got to do it and we’ve got to stick together.”

Cantrell’s recent letter to the Wilkes County commissioners urging them to speak out on the importance of COVID-19 precautions and getting vaccinated prompted the commissioners to establish a COVID-19 task force with representation from varied segments of the community.

All 12 Wilkes County school nurses volunteered to work at the clinics on a rotating basis, usually four at a time. They get normal pay from the Wilkes schools while serving on vaccination teams.

Simultaneously, the school nurses are still doing contact tracing for COVID-19 cases in the schools. Earlier in the pandemic, they helped the health department with contact tracing.

Wilkes school nurses Becky Smith and Nikki Splawn were one of the vaccination teams at the clinic Thursday.

Smith said their efforts at the clinics help keep students and staff in the schools safer. Splawn agreed and added, “We long for the day when school nurse work will be normal again.”

Splawn said she believes the percentage of Wilkes teachers planning to get vaccinated when this is allowed starting Feb. 24 exceeds that of the general public. She said acceptance is growing as those with reservations learn about more people they know having no adverse reactions to the vaccine.

Debbie Nicholson, the health department’s director of nursing, said health department nurses, Wilkes Emergency Medical Services staff (including director Tim Pennington) and Dr. Leticia Kribbs, a local pediatrician, are also vaccinating people at the clinics. Kribbs does this as a volunteer.

The health department has received statewide recognition for how rapidly people are vaccinated at its clinics. Ten two-person teams are vaccinating about 1,000 people with first doses in about three and a half hours. About 150 people are vaccinated every 30 minutes in second dose clinics.

“We definitely could not do this without our community partners and all of our volunteers. We are very thankful for all of the help,” said Nicholson. Ways to improve are discussed at weekly health department meetings on the clinics, she added.

Staffing in addition to the teams administering vaccine typically includes eight Wilkes Sheriff’s Office deputies helping with traffic, additional health department staff in various roles and additional Wilkes EMS paramedics on standby as people wait for 15 minutes in their vehicles after being vaccinated to see if they have reactions. Wilkesboro police officers also help with traffic.

Volunteers and health department staff register people to be vaccinated as they wait in line in their vehicles.

On Thursday, volunteers registering people included several second-year nursing students at Wilkes Community College; Dr. Joe Fesperman, a local retired family practice physician; and twin sisters Martha Ogilvie Brame and Margaret Ogilvie Stone, both retired teachers.

Willard said all of the volunteers and representatives of county government departments and the Wilkes County Schools are important to the success of the clinics.

She said more volunteers are needed. Interested people can contact the health department at 336-651-7461 for more information.

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