FARMINGTON, Mo. – A FOX 2 crew spent the past two days essentially embedded with the Missouri National Guard and medical teams as they pulled together a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Farmington. The effort may have set a record in Missouri for most vaccinations at a single event.
Thirty Missouri Air National Guard members from across the state had boots on the ground in Farmington more than 24 hours before the first shot, transforming the town of fewer than 20,000 people into a frontline in the battle against the virus.
St. Francois County Health Director Linda Ragsdale said the county health clinic in nearby Park Hills had managed about 40 shots-per-day.
Just after noon on Wednesday, enough vaccine arrived at the clinic for 2,200 to 2,300 doses. They would be given in out span of about 9 hours a day later at the Farmington Civic Center.
“Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse,” said Lt. Col. Dan Schepers, Missouri Air National Guard. “That’s what we’re going to do to make sure this is as smooth for the citizens as possible.”
The Guard teamed with an army of city workers, and first responders, turning the Civic Center gym into one big clinic on Wednesday. They mapped and tested traffic flow so medical teams could focus on how best to get needles into arms.
“I like to think of it as we’re the stage crew, they’re the stars of it,” Lt. Col. Schepers said.
“Absolutely, we have the National Guard backing us up,” Ragsdale said. “Literally, this is a community coming together. To pull this off from registration to the vaccinating, there’s a long road in between there in connecting all those dots.”
At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Guard members started checking people in as they pulled into the Civic Center parking lot at their assigned times. Those getting shots had to be age 65 and older and registered during a two and a half week sign up period. Among the first 600 into the building were Bill and Judy Ware of Farmington.
For them, the shots couldn’t have fallen on a better day: Judy’s birthday. It turned out to be quite the birthday party.
“We’ve been almost giddy,” Judy said.
“I was amazed on how many medical people are in here doing this,” Bill Ware said. “The National Guard has done such a good job of directing everybody. We didn’t have any wait in the parking lot. It was just every easily done.”
They’d been to company Christmas parties in the same gym and were very moved by what they saw their Thursday: a vaccination assembly line, churning out more than 200 shots per hour.
“This is the beginning. We will get there. It may take us a little while but we’ll get there,” Ragsdale said. “This is a very good start for our community.”
The total number of vaccinations would amount to about 5% of the county’s population, said Dr. Scott Kirkley of BJC Parkland Health Center. It was a big step for a county where the previous health director left her job after getting threats over mask orders.
“After being in a county that struggled so much with the idea of a mask mandate…the biggest thing is it just gives me hope,” Dr. Kirkley said. “It gives me hope that more people will survive this; that families won’t have to wonder if they’ve given it to each other and someone has a bad outcome.
“The future state of this will require the vaccine to be given not just at an event like this or at the county health department but at every doctor’s office, every pharmacy, and everybody that can put a needle in an arm. If we want to (reach) the number of people to reach herd immunity, we’re all going to have to be pulling in the same direction at the same time.”
Those hopes drive the close to 150 volunteers, 80 health care workers from Parkland Health Center and the county health department, along with the Guard, to do this all over again for second doses in three weeks.
“We haven’t Christmas yet with our 5-year-old (granddaughter),” Judy Ware said. “Hopefully, we can get back to somewhat normal life; see our kids; see our friends. It’s been a long haul.”
The mass vaccination event across the state of Missouri had averaged about 2,000 vaccinations, each, according to a spokeswoman for Governor Mike Parson.
The effort in Farmington may have topped them all.
“This means a lot to us and the rest of the Guard to get this done so people can get back to normal as quickly and safely as possible,” Lt. Col. Schepers said. “Smiling faces and waving when they leave, that’s huge.”