Nancy Staggers: Volunteer vaccinators have messages for us all

‘We love you and we don’t want you to get sick.’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lauro Martinez receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Rachelle Peltier with the Salt Lake County Health Department during a mobile clinic provided for the Hispanic community at 339 East 3900 South in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, April 24, 2021.

“I am so excited to be here! I have not been out of the basement for over a year.”

The woman getting her first vaccine told me she and her husband have been scared to death they would bring the virus home to her mom, who is 96 and lives with them. The couple work from home and have everything delivered in – groceries and other essentials. Their home is then part prison and part sanctuary, but the vaccine is a step toward safety for her mom and freedom for the couple.

A man said his family has been in their basement since last March. He smiled and his eyes grew soft when he added that he and his wife had a baby during the pandemic. “The baby thinks there are only four people in the world because that is all he has seen in his lifetime.”

I asked another man to verify his date of birth. He took a deep breath, sighed, turned red and teared up. “Lo siento. Estoy emocinado.” (I’m sorry. I am excited.) He couldn’t bring himself to tell me his birthdate in either Spanish or English. He finally reached for his wallet and pulled out his driver’s license. He said he is so grateful to be getting his first shot.

A friend sang her best Pat Benatar impression to her vaccinator, “Hit me with your best shot!”

I am working my first shifts as a volunteer vaccinator. As a retired Army nurse and informatics professor, I am pleased to have skills to contribute to the vaccination effort. The experience is gratifying but still worrying.

The mass vaccination sites in the Salt Lake Valley are nearly festive with people’s smiling eyes above their masks.

“Thank you for doing this for us,” they say.

One family delivered pizzas for the volunteers. Another gave individual bundt cakes to everyone. A group touring the site stopped to applaud the vaccinators.

It is a happy beginning, but will we get to herd immunity in Utah? Experts indicate we need 85% of people vaccinated. We vaccinators see only the motivated and informed people at our Salt Lake sites right now. People even drive from Santaquin and Ogden because they were able to find early appointments with our Salt Lake County sites.

I am not sure how to translate this excitement to the vaccine reluctant. A friend drags her heels about making a vaccine appointment. She is Latina and aware she is at higher risk for COVID-19 and more likely to die if she gets sick.

She said, “The needles on TV are so big, they look like they will go right through my arm!”

I replied, “But the risk of the disease is greater. People often say they don’t feel anything during the injection.”

She is not convinced.

A survey of 80,000 Americans in mid-March 2021 indicated that a full 17% of Americans will refuse COVID vaccinations. More are just reluctant. Our federal and state leaders do not require the vaccine (or even masks now in Utah). My friends and I relish the idea of a vaccine passport for activities like fitness classes; we are skeptical they will be adopted.

Even simple efforts such as personal stories could persuade. Those of us who are fully vaccinated can be vaccine ambassadors with our tales of being released from our basements, and we can reach out to the unvaccinated.

A friend and I cornered our Latina friend. “We love you and don’t want you to get sick.”

She relented, saying, “I need the vaccine.”

It’s a personal technique all of us can employ.

Nancy Staggers

Nancy Staggers, Ph.D., RN is a retired nurse, Army colonel and clinical informatics professor. She is a volunteer vaccinator for the Salt Lake County Medical Reserve Corps.