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First responders get help — and give it — with COVID-19 vaccinations

Bellingham | Vancouver | March 16, 2021
Nancy Vanderpol gives COVID-19 vaccine to Kelly Devlin
EMS and paramedics lean in to help vaccination efforts in PeaceHealth communities.

It’s in their nature to be first when it comes to helping others.

In the case of COVID-19 vaccination, hundreds of first responders in two PeaceHealth communities were among the first to be helped themselves.

After months of the pandemic, the world eagerly awaited a vaccine. Once vaccines were approved, Scott Ryckman, chief of the Bellingham Fire Department was struck by how quickly things moved.

“I got a call on December 23 about 1 p.m. from PeaceHealth about getting our crews vaccinated,” he said. By that evening, 10 of his team were scheduled to get their first shots a few days later and 20 were set up for the week following.

A natural choice

Making vaccination clinics happen as quickly — and carefully — as possible was one of PeaceHealth’s goals, according to Kris Gaggero, senior clinic manager for PeaceHealth’s pediatric clinic in Bellingham, Washington.

“We were asked to start vaccinating key people in the community,” she said. “It was only natural that EMTs, paramedics and other first responders were among those first considered.”Katie Johnson, LPN Clinic lead at PeaceHealth in Bellingham, Washington.

Kris said her team was a natural choice for launching local COVID-19 vaccination efforts. “As a pediatric office, we do more vaccinations than anyone else,” she noted.

Though her clinic team was freshly off the experience of running several highly successful flu vaccination clinics in the fall, COVID-19 vaccination presented some unique challenges — from the strict sub-zero storage needs to the limited timeframe to use doses once they’ve been pulled from storage. On top of that, the different types of vaccines had to be tracked and people needed to be called back to set up appointments for their second dose.

And all had to be done within the standard COVID-19 protective measures — masking, hand and device hygiene and social distancing.

A lot of juggling

“The biggest challenge was the 15- to 30-minute waits to watch for possible reactions to the shot,” Kris said. “There was a lot of juggling to keep things moving.”

Kris’s team worked to make all aspects of the vaccination process as smooth and efficient as possible -- from scheduling and check-in to vaccination, post-shot monitoring and second-dose call-backs.

Scott said his crew had been prepared for potentially long waits and some confusion — given the fact that the vaccine was so new and administering it rather complicated. They needn’t have worried.

“It took less than 30 minutes — in and out. It was so well run. It exceeded anything we expected,” said Scott. “It blew my mind how quickly it happened and with such care and kindness.”

Jumped at the chance

In southwest Washington, the same was happening at one of PeaceHealth’s urgent care clinics.

Ryan Cole, RN, nurse manager for the Memorial Urgent Care clinic, jumped at the chance for Memorial to be a COVID-19 vaccination site — also beginning with first responders.

“We set up the new space for the vaccinations and walked through the proposed process — being very thoughtful and careful about everything we were doing,” Ryan said.

Two days later, his team opened up the clinic and vaccinated just under 100 first responders in a day.

“We really had a passion to service the people who were going out into our community,” noted Ryan. “We partnered heavily with AMR (ambulance service) to get their personnel through first.”

Between December and early January, Ryan estimates the clinic provided 3,000 vaccinations for first responders in the area.

COVID vaccination observation room An emotional experience

“Vaccinating this population first was special for me,” said Ryan, who had himself been a firefighter paramedic years ago.

Scott echoed the sentiment, knowing his teams had been “carrying the uncertainty of what they might be taking home every night to their families after working through the pandemic all year.”

Emotion chokes Scott’s voice, even months later when talking about his COVID-19 vaccination experience.

“It meant so much for the EMS community to get vaccinated,” he said. “Nothing I say can adequately express my deep gratitude.”

Giving back

Scott’s team found other ways of showing their appreciation.

Several went back to help the vaccination clinic when it was opened up to eligible patients.

“The EMS workers were great,” said Kris. Not only did they help early in the process to make sure things would work smoothly for patients, “they also came and volunteered their own time to help patients coming in for vaccinations. It was really neat to see them give back.”

And it was no surprise. Helping others is in their nature.

PeaceHealth is continuing with vaccinations based on established official eligibility guidance and supply allocation from our state and local public health partners. You can find information about vaccine eligibility at, including state-run mass vaccination sites. Eligibility is not a guarantee of vaccine availability.

Photos, courtesy of Kris Gaggero:
Top:  Nancy Vanderpol, vaccine program coordinator with PeaceHealth in Bellingham, Washington, gives the first COVID-19 vaccine to Kelly Devlin, a paramedic with the Bellingham Fire Department.
Second: Katie Johnson, LPN Clinic lead at PeaceHealth in Bellingham, Washington, stands ready to make second-dose appointments in the observation area.
Third: Observation room at Health Education Center at PeaceHealth in Bellingham.

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