‘Remarkable Effort’: Elfer recalls road to vaccine site in second year of COVID

Published 9:00 am Saturday, March 26, 2022

For Warren County Emergency Management Director John Elfer, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic was both familiar and unfamiliar from a professional standpoint.

While he never thought he’d be part of the response to a worldwide disease, Elfer admitted it all comes down to one word: logistics.

“Did I ever think I’d be participating in a pandemic? The answer is no. Did I ever think we’d be in a response mode this long, dealing with any of it? The answer is no, I did not,” he said. “I wouldn’t say my job changed at all, because my job is not to be in charge; it’s to coordinate. Whether you’re handing out masks, bottles of water, food or shots, it’s still logistics and coordination and communication. That’s all this is.”

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Elfer is quick to deflect efforts to credit him with Warren County’s pandemic response but said one point of community pride in year two of the pandemic stands out: The implementation and coordination of Warren County’s COVID-19 vaccine site.

It began with a phone call from then-Board of Supervisors President, Dr. Jeff Holland, asking why the county didn’t have a vaccine site. The response was simple: the Mississippi State Department of Health hadn’t set one up. So, Holland and other local leaders urged Elfer to help make a site happen.

“I called (the head of MSDH) and I said, ‘We need a vaccine site here,’ and he said no, because they didn’t have enough people,” Elfer said. “So I said, ‘What if I could get the nurses and the volunteers, and you send the National Guard and Health Department?’ He told me he’d call me back, and the wheels got rolling.”

The first step was to hire volunteer coordinators, whom Elfer said deserve credit for drumming up enough volunteers to help the site be a success.

“We called nursing homes, hospitals, health care facilities, doctor’s offices and started getting a pool of volunteers and got a schedule going: three days a week, beginning at 8 a.m. and ending around 3:30 p.m.,” he said. “We were a hybrid site. I had set up points of distribution sites before, in Katrina and when the water has gone out in Warren County. It’s all the same thing — you’re giving a product away.”

At the site’s busiest points, it averaged 30 to 40 volunteers a day. While other sites in the state were run almost entirely by National Guardsmen, Warren County’s was staffed primarily of local volunteers. The National Guard did come in, however, to coordinate paperwork and traffic control, something Elfer said was desperately needed.

Another volunteer that stood out in Elfer’s mind was a local pediatrician who’d retired but came out to help.

“Dr. Gordon Sluis, a retired pediatrician, would walk the line during the waiting period and talk to them, checking on them. Things like that made a difference,” he said.

From Feb. 2 to June 16, 2021, more than 19,000 shots were distributed and “thousands upon thousands” of masks were handed out, with Elfer’s office acting as the county’s coordinating body.

The community rose to the occasion as well, he said, with one show of support being the meals delivered to the site each day. Lunches were donated by churches, individuals and local restaurants, and for the duration of the site, no one had to pay to be fed.

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. gave permission for Vicksburg Fire Chief Craig Danczyk to send an ambulance to the site every day, staffed by a paramedic, and the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and Vicksburg Police Department also helped with coordination and distribution efforts at the site.

“It was a really great example of this community’s willingness to help one another. Nobody complained, nobody got sideways, we had a very good contact with the health department,” Elfer said. “We had retired nurses, retired doctors, people that were still working, all kinds of different people coming to help us. And they all knew each other, so it was like a great big reunion for this common goal.”