By Lyra Bordelon
The Greenbrier County Health Department and COVID-19 Task Force are both celebrating and cautious of the current state of the pandemic. The department has hosted ample large-scale vaccination clinics, getting shots in arms to prevent the further spread of the disease. However, the arrival of new variants of the virus in Greenbrier County has healthcare providers worried and urging caution.
“We are well over 20,000 [people in Greenbrier County vaccinated],” explained Dr. Bridgett Morrison, health officer for the Health Department. “That’s not just what the health department has done, that’s all of our partnered community members. … We have vaccinated anywhere between 800 and 1,300 people during these vaccination clinics.”
The clinics have helped get the first shot to over half of Greenbrier County already. The process can often take under an hour for those getting vaccinated, beginning with arriving on the fairgrounds, to getting the shot, sitting through the 15 minute waiting period, then going on with the day.
“We’ve gotten a lot of exceptional compliments from people who have participated and came through to get their vaccine,” Morrison said. “Our biggest obstacle so far has really been the weather. … There have been a few times with the weather where we couldn’t have all the volunteers there, but it’s not been hard to find them. We’ve been very blessed to have all the volunteers. Quite frankly, we have been very successful and we’re starting to wind down with them.”
Kayla McCoy of the Greater Greenbrier Long Term Recovery Committee is coordinating volunteers at the clinics. She began after the health department had “already completed six or seven of them” while each of the 15 full-time health department staff members did “the work of four people trying to make these large-scale clinics happen.”
“At first … I was incredibly overwhelmed by the scope of the operation,” McCoy said. “Taking into consideration that the last time I saw that many people in one room was when the Long Term Recovery Committee was assisting Greenbrier County Schools with their nutrition program [in March 2020], so it’s been almost a year since I’ve been in a room with more than maybe four or five people. I was absolutely in awe of them, completely in awe of every single person who works [at the health department] who somehow managed to build this up into something that can vaccinate 1,000 people in a single day.”
McCoy explained the clinic’s mood is very different to other crises the Long Term Recovery Committee has helped manage.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve coordinated a lot of volunteers in a crisis,” McCoy said. “The big difference here is that normally people aren’t happy to see me. They come in for help or they come in for cleaning supplies, they’ve just experienced a devastating loss, their home is flooded. This is completely the opposite, people who come in to receive their vaccines are so excited to be there. They are personable, interacting with volunteers in a way that is rejuvenating. … I knew we were doing it correctly and I knew we were doing it in a way our community could be proud of when people started finishing their post-vaccine observation period and people would walk over to my table and say ‘hi, I want to come help you, where do I sign up?’”
Although the numbers might be looking up, the pandemic is still far from over. Since COVID-19 emerged, killing over half a million people in the United States alone, the virus has mutated and evolved in several places. Often these mutations are harmless, some can become more lethal, more contagious, or both. Two examples can be found in strains believed to have mutated in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
“We know the South African variant is here in Greenbrier County too,” Morrison said. “We have to continue to do what we’ve been saying to do for a year now – social distancing, the frequent handwashing, continuing to wear the masks, and being vigilant. We know it’s here, we know it’s more contagious, more easily caught than the other variants, and we know the vaccine helps.”
“We can celebrate these successes and we can recognize the incredible work and we are hopefully nearing the point where we can put the large-scale efforts and relief behind us, but we can’t let our guard down,” McCoy said. “This is still a communicable disease, there are still variants popping up, there will continue to be variants popping up. The UK Variant is here right now, most of those cases are in children. We need to continue to wear masks, maintaining social distancing as best as possible.”
Morrison also noted a number of younger individuals that are eligible did not want to be vaccinated, but the health department has reached out to the Greenbrier County Board of Education to push back on potential misinformation about the vaccine.
“It’s a relief to know there are so many in our county that are vaccinated, but it’s still scary because we’re seeing a surge of cases,” Morrison said. “We are encountering people that don’t want to be vaccinated for various reasons, and most of them say it’s no big deal or ‘I’m worried because it’s an experimental vaccine.’ …The mRNA vaccine is new, but the technology behind it, the science behind it, has been out for twenty years. … It’s wonderful to be in the position that we’re in … but we’re still fearful because of the rise in cases.”
McCoy also pointed to the Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force formed shortly before the pandemic began last year. Led by Senator Stephen Baldwin, who regularly publishes summaries from their meetings to social media, the Task Force has played a large role in the local pandemic response.
“Establishing that Task Force is probably the best thing we could have done for our community,” McCoy said. “We knew it needed to be done, we had no way of knowing the role it would play moving forward. … Of course, [we should thank] the State Fair of West Virginia. There are communities across the state that would be able to rally the way we have and pull something like this off on this scale, but they don’t have the facilities or the infrastructure. … Radio Greenbrier for giving us a radio station so we can call people into the building, that’s genius. That’s amazing. That Task Force is the reason we are able to identify and leverage these community resources.
McCoy also thanked Jennifer Mason for coordinating food for the volunteers, including from The Greenbrier, Amy’s Market, Road Hogs, and The Corner Market, saying “it’s been good, wholesome, delicious meals and I’m very grateful we don’t have to worry about any of that.”
Even with the clinics beginning to wind down, Morrison also emphasized that everyone should be vaccinated and encouraged those still waiting to reach out.
“There’s no excuse – if you want the vaccine, you should be able to get it in a week. Call the health department, we’ll get it done. Call any of the local pharmacies, Robert C. Byrd Clinic, Rainelle Medical Center. They all have the vaccine.”