25 Investigates

25 Investigates: A village of volunteers to vaccinate Lawrence against COVID-19

LAWRENCE, Mass. — Haga clic aquí para leer la versión en español de esta historia

25 Investigates continues to track the vaccine rollout across the state. In this story, we are focusing on one of the hardest-hit cities in the state, Lawrence. According to the state’s most recent data, the positive test rate in Lawrence is 11.53%. It’s more than three and half times greater than the state’s average at 2.96% as of Monday, February 9.

The city is racing against the clock to vaccinate residents. Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh found Lawrence is taking charge of its own rollout with the help of hundreds of volunteers.

The effort to build this village of volunteers started with one woman, Kim Sullivan a Lawrence resident of 20 years.

“It was one of those things where I thought I can’t possibly sleep at night, if I if I don’t help,” Sullivan said.

For months, she was watching COVID-19 overrun her city.

“I just saw the numbers going up and up and up,” Sullivan said. “And I said, you know, what people need to help in the community, we need to step up and do something.”

Lawrence has a population of about 79,000 and has seen about 17,238 cases or 22% of the city. 221 residents have died.

“Vaccine is the hope for the city today,” said Lawrence Mayor Kendrys Vasquez.

Standing up a vaccination program is a massive effort. So far, South Lawrence East Elementary School, run by Lawrence General Hospital, is the city’s only public vaccination site.

Inside the school gym turned vaccine clinic, Kavanaugh found a flurry of hope among many medical professionals getting their first and second doses.

“So far, so good, super excited. It’s great,” said Trisha Zolin, an occupational therapist. “Hope that today is the first day of us continuing to move forward.”

“A lot of relief,” said Elaine Papachristos, a Lawrence school nurse.

“It feels like a step in the right direction, like things are getting better, hopefully,” said Janna Mercier, a personal care assistant.

“We take initiatives on our own, to provide the best we can for every single resident,” Mayor Vasques said. But he added the city needs more sites and, more importantly, people to work those sites.

An enormous undertaking for the city’s Health and Human Services director, Martha Velez.

“When someone comes to you and says, I can help you, you’re going to open the gates and say, please,” said Velez.

That someone was Kim Sullivan.

“So, I reached out to a group called the Kindness Collaborative, Sullivan explained. “They helped me organize a sign up for volunteers to help in the vaccine clinics in Lawrence.”

“What was your reaction to the response,” Kavanaugh asked.

“I was astounded,” Sullivan said. “In the first week, we had over 100 people. And in the first two weeks, we ended up with 350 volunteers, including over 100 doctors and nurses who in you know, busy enough in their day jobs and wanted to actually come and help.”

“I don’t think that the city of Lawrence will be able to manage an operation this scale, without, you know, strong volunteer support,” Mayor Vasquez said. “So, these volunteers are crucial.”

To understand the dire need in the city, it’s important to take a step back and understand Lawrence. A high percentage of Lawrence residents are non-native English speakers. Many are essential workers who don’t have the luxury of working from home, and many live close together in multi-family homes.

Fold in food and housing insecurity and the highly transmissible virus spread easily here.

“My goal is to make sure that there is a vaccination available for people that want to get in that line and get that vaccination,” said Velez.

The city has launched a live call center in English and Spanish. For information call 978-620-3330.

The city is also working to hire more staff so there is infrastructure to support hundreds of volunteers who will join the ranks, once vetted.

“We are considering bringing in 35 additional nurses at the city level, we have hired, you know, close to 100 student workers,” said Vasquez.

“I think it could be a lifeline really,” Sullivan said. “We could make a huge change. We’re trying to build a village of volunteers to really get these vaccinations done and get the city back on track.”

This massive vaccine operation requires money and doses of vaccine. Lawrence says they need more of both from the state and the feds.

To find out more about the Kindness Collaborative and how you can help here.

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