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County's efforts to test, vaccinate helped along by volunteers

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Drive-thru vaccine 02

Vaccine site volunteer Bill Davis poses for a portrait Jan. 26 at the Skagit County Fairgrounds. "I wanted to do something to fight back," said Davis.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has rolled on, Skagit County's testing and vaccination site has seen changes.

It has moved from Skagit Valley College to the county fairgrounds. It has gone from taking anyone to limiting itself to county residents. It has gone from only testing to testing and vaccinating.

But one thing has remained constant: the local volunteers who have helped the site operate since the day it opened.

While the site has some paid employees, volunteers help with nearly everything that occurs there, from the moment patients appear to when they leave.

Since the start of the pandemic, the site has administered about 43,000 tests and about 2,000 doses of the vaccine. In the 10 months since the testing site opened, 242 volunteers have helped out.

"In order to do as (much) and have as big an operation you need the support of volunteers," said Tina Bobbitt, volunteer programs coordinator with the county Department of Emergency Management.

Rosemary Alpert, the volunteer and community engagement coordinator at the Skagit Valley Family YMCA, has been working at the site full time since September in conjunction with the county Public Health Department. She said what the site has been able to do would be unthinkable without the work put in by the volunteers.

"The dedicated volunteers who show up — they show up to the front line no matter what," Alpert said.

Alpert said the volunteers are a diverse group.

"Some are retired. We've also had some young community members who are volunteering," she said. "We've had some young people helping with their parents, but we've also had some college students. Over the summer we had a lot of young volunteers, especially at Skagit Valley College. It's exciting to see a diverse collection of our community, including various parts of the community."

The Skagit Valley Herald spoke to several volunteers about their experiences.

Dean Becker

Becker is no stranger to volunteering, from his work with a HAM radio group to his stints portraying Santa Claus when he worked in California as a police officer. 

"I like to volunteer for things," he said.

At the vaccination and testing site, Becker does traffic control and is often the first face patients see.

"I like to say it's like (greeting) at Wal-Mart," Becker said.

He's the first in a line of 10 traffic-control volunteers, Becker said, all working in coordination to get patients to the right part of the site in the most efficient way possible.

"We have to communicate with each other with hand signals, radios, sometimes just plain yelling at each other," he said.

While traffic control is the crux of Becker's work, he said it's still a job centered around people.

He specifically remembers some encounters and specific people, such as the restaurant workers worried they'd been exposed to COVID-19 by a customer, and a woman who works in the medical field who has been tested 22 times. 

"We get people from all walks of life," Becker said. "Some people are scared or nervous. We're the first face they meet so we calm them down, let them know everything is going to be OK."

The work may involve its share of wet and cold weather, but Becker said it has to be done — and he's happy to do it.

"People volunteering, they're doing a job no one else wants to," he said. "People don't want to stand in rain, people don't want to get that close to someone who may have the virus. But somebody's got to do that."

Rose Torset

Torset worked as a nurse in the Sedro-Woolley School District for about 20 years. When she retired in late 2019, she didn't think she'd be in action again ... until COVID-19 arrived.

At first, she helped patients take tests to detect the virus, handing them nasal-swab kits. Now she's moved on to another crucial task: giving the vaccine.

"I hadn't given an injection in quite some time. But the training all comes back," Torset said. "It's like riding a bicycle."

When Torset worked as a school nurse, she did a lot more than put on the occasional bandage. The job involved tasks such as working with the families of children with diabetes and allergies in order to keep the children safe.

Now she finds herself part of another effort to keep people safe. 

"The (Skagit County) emergency management department, they're the head of it. They've just been super great, very organized, as well as the health department," Torset said. "The head of the health department was always here, making sure we had what we need. The whole thing's been well organized."

Torset started out by volunteering a few days a week. Now she's on call, with her hours determined by vaccine availability.

"I've had a really good experience there. I feel very comfortable there. It's well taken care of," she said.

Dorothy Bradshaw

Bradshaw used to work with public-health departments and organizations in Helena, Montana and Whatcom County. Although she's since become a cheese maker — starting Bow-based Skagit Maid Creamery — when the pandemic hit, she knew her skills could be of use at the testing site.

Bradshaw works registering patients, a process she said has changed and become more sophisticated.

"At first it was all manually," she said. "Just two or three weeks ago we went to an online system. Now we're inputting information on laptops."

She said the site has the potential to cause stress, considering the tests, the paperwork, the waiting times. But that hasn't been her experience.

"I love seeing the cavalcade of people who come through to be tested. It shows the system is working and it shows people working together," she said. "You hear stories in other places of rudeness and people being hassled. But most people are appreciative. In some cases people wait two or three hours to get tested, but they'd get there and say 'Thank you.' I'm amazed how kind and appreciative people have been."

Bradshaw previously worked in the public health field in Montana and Whatcom County.

"I'm committed to public health and public health infrastructure, and I've been impressed with the health department and department of emergency management ... it's a real group effort, a diverse group age-wise. But everybody is working together to provide a community service to the community. It's great to work with group of committed people."

Bill Davis

A former police officer and member of the Coast Guard, Davis wasn't comfortable sitting out the fight against COVID-19.

"When faced with a challenge like COVID-19, I wanted to see if there was a way to fight back. I didn't want to do nothing. I wanted to get into the battle to defeat it," Davis said.

A Shelter Bay resident, Davis previously headed up the county's Community Emergency Response Team and is on the list to help when emergency situations hit the county. In the spring, he started volunteering at the testing site by directing traffic.

"My feeling was, every time we found someone who (tested) positive we were saving lives," he said.

Davis said some days site workers have to deal with the cold and rain. He recalls one recent day when sleet was mixed in, too.

He said such days can be uncomfortable, but the experience of helping at the site is something he describes as a "privilege."

"You do it for reasons that are easy to justify, and when you get off shift you get warm again," Davis said.

— Reporter Trevor Pyle: 360-416-2156, tpyle@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @goskagit, Facebook.com/bytrevorpyle

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