When it came time to provide vaccinations in Athens, Ohio, the local health department had plenty of help from nearby Ohio University, as well as the local community.

From local businesses buying lunches for volunteers to employees volunteering to help the vaccine effort, the community of Athens came together, as small towns do, to provide its residents with vaccines for Covid-19.

For Elizabeth Turman, a retired nurse and wife of a local business owner, buying lunch for volunteers was one way to help. 

“My boss’s wife is a retired nurse and she wanted to do that as someone who could imagine what it was like to be on the front-lines like that,” said Arianna Rinaldi, office manager at CE Tide, an Athens construction and lumber company. CE Tide is owned by William Turman.  

Rinaldi said the community, home to Ohio University, came together to ensure those who wanted vaccines got them.

“It feels like the majority of our community did get the vaccine,” she said. “I was on a waiting list for appointments if anyone canceled their appointment and they needed someone to give the shot to. There was even a wait to get on that list. I feel like most of the people here did get vaccinated though.”

The pandemic, said John Gutekanst, owner of Avalanche Pizza, was hard on businesses and the public. His business was forced to pivot several times to overcome obstacles like switching to curbside service, and incidents between staff and customers over masks. 

“The health department was great,” he said. “They kept us informed and really let us know what was going on. 

But as the pandemic hit the county of 65,000, Gutekanst said he saw the impact it was having on his community and the number of people facing food shortages. 

“I started making lunches,” he said. “We’d get up early and make lunches and take them to the food banks. The need for food just went through the roof.” 

Avalanche Pizza made more than 5,000 lunches over the course of the pandemic, he said. Through donations from purveyors and customers, the company was able to help feed the community. 

They even made lunch for those involved in the vaccine effort. 

“We went over the top,” he said. “I got shrimp and lobster. I got steak. We really wanted to show them how much we appreciated their work.” 

The vaccination effort came from a collaboration between Athens City-County Public Health, Ohio University, the Athens City School District and plenty of volunteers, said Dr. Jack Gaskell, Athens City-County Public Health, Health Commissioner & Medical Director.

From left are Dr. Ken Johnson, the chief executive officer of the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. James R. Gaskell, Athens City County Health Department, Health Commissioner, Ohio Governor Michael Dewine, and his wife. Governor DeWine visited a vaccination clinic located at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. (Source: Dr. Jack Gaskell)

“We were really proud and lucky to have made contact like we did,” Gaskell said. “We collaborated with the Ohio Department of Health, Ohio,… and we collaborated with the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. They are a very brand new medical school facility … in which we were able to deliver large amounts of the vaccine rapidly.”

By working together with its partners, the public health department was able to increase the number of vaccines it has given, increase the number of nurses available to give the vaccines and do so in an indoor space that allowed organizers to have people go through the vaccine process without coming in contact with other people.

“You entered through one door… walked down a hall, registered, took a left, went into the nurses area where you got the vaccine, exited through the opposite door and entered the Atrium, which was large enough for 40 to 50 people to sit in while still being socially distant. Then you’d exit through another door. Once you came in you never got within six feet of anybody.”

Businesses also stepped up, he said, providing lunches for volunteers and helping with getting the word out to the community. 

Gaskell estimates they were able to deliver as many as 1,200 vaccines a day. As of the beginning of the month, he estimates nearly 25,000 vaccine doses were delivered.

“We also provided vaccinations  at Beacon School, at all of the local county high schools, on the Ohio University tennis courts and at The Athens City-County Health Department,” he said. “Through the efforts of the local pharmacies, Holzer Health, Ohio Health, and the Athens City County Health Department we have vaccinated 40 % of the populace of the county.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, , 38% of Athens County is fully vaccinated, as of June 14. That puts Athens county behind the statewide average of 47%, but above most of the other rural counties in the state – like Adams County at 23%, Holmes County at 13% and Van Wert County at 21%.

In his opinion, the people who wanted to get vaccinated got their shots early. The county vaccinated more than three quarters of its residents over 65, according to the CDC

“[Older residents] came in large numbers,” he said. “It was the ones in their 30s and 40 and 20s that didn’t come in. We vaccinated maybe 20% or 30% of them. The older population recognized clearly that they might die if they got infected, younger people, not so much.”

CDC records say more than three quarters of Athens County residents aged 65 and up have been fully vaccinated. The rate drops to 45% of the population 18 and older.

While people lining up for vaccines dropped precipitously in May, Gaskell said the public health department saw an increase after May 18, the start of the state’s Vax-A-Million program.

On May 17, Ohio Department of Health Director Stephanie McCloud announced that the state would conduct five weekly statewide drawings for $1 million for anyone who has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Residents between the ages of 12 and 17 would be registered to receive one of five four-year, full-ride scholarships, including room and board, tuition, and books, at any Ohio state college or university.

Gaskell said immediately after the announcement there was an increase in the number of people wanting to get a vaccine.

“I talked to some of those people… and I asked them ‘So how did you decide to come now?’ and they said ‘Oh, I’m here for the Vax-a-million!’” he said. “We’ve got a chance here. They hoped they would win a million dollars and that overcame some of the resistance to the vaccinations I think.”

While the local news organizations stepped up to tell residents about what the groups were doing and how safe the vaccine was in an effort to boost vaccination rates among the lagging age groups, nothing seemed to work like the vaccine lottery, he said.

“Well certainly, there have been newspaper articles all along…and I’m not sure that that made much difference at all,” he said. “We’ve all witnessed the president, the governor and various other famous people line up to get vaccinated, but I’m not sure that has made a difference either… We extolled the virtues of getting the vaccine and its safety, but none of that made a difference. Clearly, it was the governor’s Vax-a-million program that was influential. Money is a much better influencer than celebrities or politicians, I would say.”

Since May, several other states, including Ohio neighbor Kentucky, have started similar programs.

As demand for the vaccine wanes, the partners are working separately again, he said. The public health department continues to give vaccines, only on a much smaller scale, and only three days a week. Their next push, he said, would be to move to vaccinating the homebound. Working with the Visiting Nurses Association of Appalachia, the public health department will identify the homebound and determine how to get the vaccines to them. Additionally, the Medical School at the University will be using their mobile van to reach into smaller communities in southwestern Ohio, he said.

Now that people have gotten the vaccine, Avalanche Pizza’s Gutekanst said, there’s a different feeling in the air. It’s summer, so the town is quiet, but the attitudes have changed, he said. 

“The difference is happening right now,” he said. “Once the masks came off, people started coming out again. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen people I haven’t seen in about a year. People are happier now, if a little trepidatious.”