By Gretchen Smith
The phrase “it takes a village” is particularly true with respect to Flagler County’s Covid response.
Last week, the Florida Department of Health in Flagler County closed its drive-through operation at the Flagler County Fairgrounds, a site it had staffed for testing and vaccinations several days a week since the middle of 2020. Starting last Jan. 2, the vaccination drive-through required a staff of 50, split between employees and volunteers, resulting in 5,113 volunteer hours logged as part of this local pandemic response.
There is tremendous historical significance to the pandemic. Years from now, everyone involved with the pandemic response will have quite a story to share with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Flagler Health Department is grateful to all the volunteers who have donated their time and effort in reducing Covid infections and encouraging vaccinations in Flagler County. With any luck, these volunteers won’t reflect upon the polarized opinions about mask wearing or political divisiveness.
Instead, they will remember the role they played getting people through a global pandemic. They’ll remember the camaraderie of working through rain, cold, and heat, regulating traffic, answering questions, encouraging a smile, calming nerves, and celebrating a first dose of vaccine. They’ll remember doing something important and something that felt right — helping the community get past Covid and onto whatever our post-Covid world would be.
To share additional insight of what it meant to be part of the local Covid response from a volunteer perspective, we offer you three interviews: one from Flagler Volunteer Services’ Judy Mazzella, another from Moya Thompson, and a third from Dr. Stephen Playe, a retired emergency physician.
Meet Judy Mazzella
Two key players in this herculean volunteer effort have been Suzy Gamblain and Judy Mazzella of Flagler Volunteer Services. This team has orchestrated the “boots on the ground” for more than a year now, coordinating, screening, and scheduling a revolving crew of approximately 110 volunteers to help. At first it was all about community testing for Covid. It then expanded to large-scale vaccination events at the Flagler County Fairgrounds several days a week.
Reflecting over the past nine-plus months, Judy Mazzella describes it as an amazing experience for her agency and the volunteers involved.
“It’s really been a labor of love to keep our community safe,” said Mazzella. “Early on, it was about getting people get tested. We spent hundreds of hours working with the health department and Flagler County’s Department of Emergency Management at the first large-scale testing site at Daytona State College’s Palm Coast campus. In January 2021, we transitioned to a new home at the Flagler County Fairgrounds and other locations throughout the county to help people get vaccinated. On any given day I could expect 20 to 24 volunteers to help with clerical and traffic duty. It took a lot of scheduling and coordination, but the volunteers came back day after day and week after week. It’s apparent they really enjoyed being part of the effort and knowing how much they are appreciated.”
At its peak, the operation at the fairgrounds could vaccinate about 200 people per hour, an impressive rate reflecting an efficient operation.
In Judy’s opinion, the camaraderie and friendships that blossomed between volunteers over time encouraged them to come back. Some met through Facebook, interacting online, sharing testing and vaccination information, dispelling myths, supporting the health department’s efforts and ultimately signing up to volunteer. Husbands recruited wives, wives recruited husbands. Couples recruited other couples, building an extended family, forming new friendships and making the entire experience more rewarding.
Responding to a global pandemic is serious work. But Flagler’s volunteers found ingenious ways to add levity to make the vaccination site a friendly place to work and visit. Crazy hat days, costumes, cardboard cutouts and dancing while on traffic detail added a sense of relief and hope for the guests. And yes, there was food, everything from home baked cookies and snacks, to donated lunches. The volunteers took good care of each other.
Judy shared a story about a volunteer named Valerie, who became a well-known character in the drive through at the Fairgrounds. Many days Valerie brought her own radio with her, an old school “boom box,” which she positioned on her car, allowing her to have her own 1990s dance party while directing traffic.
“One day Valerie came up to me and she said ‘Judy, did you have breakfast?’ And I said, ‘No, Valerie, I didn’t.’ Valerie responded – with a big smile — and says ‘Good, because I made you a breakfast sandwich.’ This is just one example of how we’ve gone from being strangers to becoming a family of people who look out for one other.”
“This operation encouraged a lot of couples to volunteer. They just they love it and have befriended other couples,” said Mazzella. “So many of them missed socializing because of COVID, volunteering gave them something to look forward to that was both productive and meaningful. We all worked so well together and could count on one another to jump in whenever and wherever necessary. So, it’s been a wonderful experience in so many ways. Knowing that they are making a difference brought them back day after day.”
Meet Moya Thompson
When Covid first hit, volunteer opportunities for Moya and her husband came to a standstill. After spending weeks in lockdown, retirees like Moya grew restless, looking for a way to help.
Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, Moya retired from 36 years of government service and moved to Flagler County in 2012. She started working with Flagler Volunteer Services in the county’s call center after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and volunteered for other events as well.
She saw an opportunity to help at the Daytona State College testing site and became a traffic volunteer. In this role, she made sure that cars kept moving and that people knew where they were going. In her opinion, it was a pretty important role.
“I’ve been doing this for a while,” explained Thompson. “After being home because of Covid, I just felt that I needed to do something, and this seemed like the perfect way to help.”
When the vaccination operation started at the Fairgrounds, Thompson signed up to volunteer there as well.
“I started as a traffic volunteer but moved to the area where people fill out consent forms before proceeding to the vaccination tent. Some of these people were elderly. They were a little nervous. They were excited, and they sometimes needed help. So, while we were keeping the cars in line, we took time to talk with the drivers and passengers. We answered questions and tried to make them feel at little more at ease before they made it to the vaccination tent.”
Thompson also weighed in on the positive vibe at the Fairgrounds.
“The people waiting in line to get their vaccines have been just amazing. We’re lucky because we get to see them up close, of course, with our masks on and keeping six feet apart, but we can see the relief on their faces, the excitement, the anticipation of getting the vaccine. It’s so rewarding. They talk to you about things that they’re going to do once they get their second dose, and it’s just a really a feeling of hope,” said Thompson. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to be part of that. As historic as all of this is, it’s just great to see people looking forward to getting their lives a little bit more back to normal.”
Thompson came up with the idea of wearing her collection of “crazy hats” to the Fairgrounds to make people smile.
On May 24, the final day of vaccinating at the Fairgrounds, Moya posted the following on her Facebook page, along with a few photos:
“What a long great trip it’s been! Since January 2, we’ve been directing thousands of Flagler County folks toward their Covid-19 vaccinations. Proud to be part of an awesome team (some of whom are featured here) that has helped make Flagler stand out in vaccination rates across Florida. Today was our last day at the Fairgrounds, but vaccines are still widely available across the county. It’s been a blast!”
Meet Dr. Stephen Playe
Dr. Stephen Playe, a retired Emergency Medicine physician, became part of the Covid-19 vaccination team in January 2021. He’s known Dr. Stephen Bickel, the health department’s medical director for 60 years.
A former doctor for Mediquick, Dr. Playe retired in October 2019 and moved to Chicago for several months. He’d remained in touch with Dr. Bickel, but, when he and his wife Ann returned to Flagler, the two “Steves” became closer, talking most every day by phone, both learning and sharing as much as they could about Covid and its transmission. Dr. Playe described their renewed friendship and joint commitment to understanding more about the virus as an “extensive but fascinating learning curve.”
“We read study after study and spent hours talking about the virus and its connection with biology, politics, economics, sociology, and air flow movements,” Playe explained. “Right from the beginning, Steve was very excited about working with Bob Snyder and the whole Covid response locally. And, so, it encouraged me to do what I could to help. Early on, most of my role was being a sounding board for a friend who made it his mission to learn as much as he could about this virus. We talked almost every day, and I even helped by writing a letter to the editor of the Palm Coast Observer about mask wearing.
“When the vaccination effort started, there was the opportunity to volunteer and be part of it, which I wanted to do. Nearly six months later, it’s been an excellent experience for me. Part of it is just feeling like you’re doing a good thing. There’s something to that. But it’s been more than that for me because my whole career in medicine has been reactive. When something bad happens to somebody, they come to the emergency department, I try to patch them up or straighten them out or whatever. It’s all reactive. This effort, on the other hand, has been preventative. It’s a whole different thing and particularly gratifying for me to do something preventative.
“It’s also been gratifying to interact with people and offer some medical assistance. I’ve been one of the four to six medical professionals that would be screening people in cars before they went in to get their vaccination. We wanted to make sure there wasn’t some medical contraindication to them getting the vaccine. We determined, from their history, if they should be watched for 15 minutes or 30 minutes after receiving a shot. Sometimes we made mildly complex medical decisions, but most were straightforward. We also answered questions and allayed concerns, and so forth. For the first time in my life, the people that I’m interacting with as a doctor are not either miserable, or angry, or both, which is a big part of emergency medicine. This has been a particularly pleasant experience, working with people who are feeling good about what they’re doing. And they’re appreciative of what we’re doing in return. That’s been nice.
“And when I could, I put in a little bit of a plug, especially recently, when we see young people coming through. I tell them how pleased I am they are getting vaccinated, and I thank them for doing something to help themselves and the rest of us. It’s about prevention and I ask them to encourage their friends to get vaccinated as well. Again, this is very different from my medical experience. If somebody comes in cardiac arrest and I resuscitate him, I help one person. This vaccine effort has the potential to help many people.
“Finally, this large-scale operation reminded me of something I always loved about emergency medicine, working with a whole team. You have your doctors, your residents, your nurses, your techs, your clerks, your orderlies, your police, your EMTs, all these people working together to try to do something good for people. And out there at the fairgrounds, all you have to do is look around and you see that exact same thing. You see volunteers, you see National Guardsmen, you see nurses, doctors, everybody working together to help folks out. It’s very much that same kind of sort of magnified joy that you get by doing something with a whole group of people all working together. That was uplifting.”
The trials of the last year and a half have shown us who the real heroes are. Our “village” stepped up. As we move into our new normal, we can honor the people we lost to this virus and help those still recovering. We will work together to rebuild trust and good will in the community. We must if we are to do more than just survive Covid-19. We can thrive in the aftermath. Let’s let that be how history remembers us.
Gretchen Smith, a Palm Coast resident, is the Public Information Officer at the Flagler Health Department.