The winds have shifted here in the USVI. Today we no longer focus on the number of positive COVID-19 test results, although those numbers are very, very low! In the Governor’s press conference yesterday, he marked the coming one year anniversary of a year of response and hardships for our community and small business owners.
This one year anniversary reveals a new chapter and new goal of working as a community towards herd immunity. As of yesterday, 12,000 Virgin Islanders had been vaccinated, and the Governor has set a community goal of 50,000, or half of the population of the territory, to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming months.
So today, we focus on growing the number instead of decreasing it. Say what you will about the administration and their accelerated efforts towards the COVID-19 pandemic. St. John is currently busier than I have seen in recent years. And active cases are below 100. Something is working.
This is not a plug for vaccinations…I believe that we have all been on our own very individual paths through all of this pandemic. And each person’s stance on vaccinations do not delineate from that belief. Here, I’ll tell a story of a milestone for a local clinic, a story of a community working together and my own personal experience in receiving the COVID-19 Moderna vaccine. Because during my experience, I was once again reminded of how truly fortunate I feel to live in this community and how grateful I am for the hardworking people who make the wheels turn behind the scenery and the beautiful backdrops!
Saturday, February 13 marked an important milestone for the Red Hook Family Practice and the USVI community. On that day, the small clinic marked the overall administration of 1000 vaccinations. To reach that milestone, 216 shots were administered on St. John last Saturday as a result of community wide coordination and man (and woman!) power.
Previous to that weekend, St. John’s non-profit clinic, The Island Health and Wellness Center, was the only provider on island that was administering COVID-19 vaccinations. Diligently using an email only appointment system, the grant and donation funded organization worked through a wait list of hundreds of residents aged 65 years and older and front line workers in order to help protect at-risk community members.
The USVI Department of Health has worked closely with local providers to ensure “as many people as possible” have access to the vaccination. At that point, we were in Phase 1B of the process which includes Restaurant Workers, Hotel Employees, Grocery Store Workers, many government employees and basically anyone who works directly with the public on a regular basis. Currently, the territory is in phase 1C; to include the majority of the general public.
Yesterday, the Governor announced the establishment of two vaccination clinics that will open to any Virgin Islander who wishes to receive the vaccination. The clinics will be on St. Thomas and St. Croix and will open on March 1 and will remain open for a limited time in order to reach the established vaccination goal. If you, or anyone you know, are residing in the USVI and want to receive a vaccination, call the hotline established by VITEMA: 340-777-VACS (8227).
I know the hardships that have come in a lot of the states. In many places, those who are over 65 and wish to receive the vaccine have had trouble getting an appointment for the coveted shot. I feel for all of those out there who have had these difficulties and wish that many of the states struggling with obtaining and administering the shots could be as efficient as the VI governing body overseeing their procurement and the administration in the territory. Kudos to Governor Bryan and his administration for once again taking new challenges head on in an effort to best protect the lives, and livelihoods, of the USVI community.
Ok…on to my experience.
Two weeks ago, I received a notice from a community member that there would be 200 vaccines administered on that upcoming Saturday and that I should call to try to make an appointment. I hesitated because of my age and low risk, but they encouraged me by saying that I work with the public and the vaccines needed to be used on that day or they would go to waste.
A lot of you may not know this about me,but I wear a whole lot of different hats. One of which is helping my boyfriend with day charters and sunset trips on his sailboat, Asante. Weirdly the boating industry, as big as it is here, is not mentioned in ANY of the phases. So, I decided to call and find out if we would even fit into this current phase and, if so, would there be any appointments available.
To my pleasant surprise, David DiGiacomo answered my call at the number on the flyer that was passed to me. David, who sits on the boards of both Island Green and Friends VINP, is an upstanding community member and seems to be involved in most of the positive activity on island. His most recent notoriety comes from a filing against Caneel Bay Aqcusitions in which he seeks to hold them accountable for the environmental contamination and subsequent clean up on the Caneel Bay Resort property that has remained closed since the storms of 2017.
He pondered my query for a moment, saying that the boating industry is indeed a grey area but that he would put me on a wait list and if I was unable to receive the first shot on Saturday there would be another opportunity on the 27th. I graciously thanked him and hung up the phone.
On Saturday morning at 10AM, I received a call from David’s lovely wife LeeAnne. She notified me that I was up next on the wait list and that there had been some no show’s. If the bottles are opened or removed from the cooling area, they have to be used within a certain time period. So, given the cancellations, she wanted to make sure I was close by just in case. I assured her that I was ten minutes away and ready to go. She asked me to stand by for a second call and be ready to go ASAP if that happened. The second call came in about 30 minutes later and I was in the car ten minutes later as requested.
What I found when I showed up is the whole reason I am writing this post. People I have not seen in months were there…Masked up and volunteering to make sure everything ran smoothly and efficiently and keeping smiles on everyone’s faces as we went through the process.
One of my favorite things about St. John is the ability to randomly catch up with the people you care about but maybe don’t see regularly. It’s almost like you think to yourself, “I wonder how so and so’s doing…I haven’t seen them for a while.” And then you run into them on the street corner two hours later. With the pandemic, that kind of just stopped. I was oh so happy to see so many Love City community members out and back to doing good with the public!
Harith Wickrema, Island Green President, and David were both there to greet us at the door to greet me. Island Green, a local non-profit established to educate upon and support sustainable living, was partnered with the Red Hook Family Practice to oversee the organization and execution of this pop-up clinic. After a brief and happy exchange and a huge thanks to them for coordinating, I rounded the corner to find Celia Kalousek, former Executive Director of the St. John Community Foundation, happily manning the check in table and taking temperatures.
I was given the green light on my temp, handed a clipboard of forms to fill out and ushered down the hallway into an open room in the foyer at Gifft Hill School’s upper campus. The room was lined with significantly spaced out chairs filled with familiar faces that were concentrating on the completion of their own forms.
Volunteer and former owner of Connections, Cid Hamling was directing traffic to the classrooms that had taken on a new facade. Each of the rooms housed a team of nurses from the Red Hook Family Practice who were tasked with rapidly administering the 200 plus vaccinations allotted to the St. John community that morning. Medical Director of the practice, Siri Akal, M.D., sat at a desk overseeing the process with Office Manager, Maggie Day, assisting. As one recipient of their first shot exited the classrooms, Cid would rapidly call out “Next!” and urgently usher the next patient into the vaccination team.
As we sat and waited, St. John Island Administrator, Shikima Jones-Sprauve entered the room looking absoutely stunning in a white dress and bedazzled mask that matched the sparkle in her eyes. She accompanied Kevin Rodriquez from Governor Bryan’s office who was on site to show support for the little community that could.
Over time, I have come to understand that St. John community members often feel left to the wayside when it comes to policies, funding and processes that the larger islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas take first chair on. We oftentimes feel the need to take matters into our own hands to immediately solve the problems presented to us. Which was blatantly apparent in the months following Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
I’m glad to say that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the VI Government has allotted the island of St. John with many of the same opportunities for safety and security as St. Croix and St. Thomas have received. At first it was a bit more difficult, yes. But a few months ago, the Department of Health began free, weekly pop-up testing on St. John. And the allotment of vaccinations and showing of face from the Governor’s office during the community run vaccination clinic further moves me to say that the administration under Governor Bryan seeks the inclusion of Love City. I would imagine Shikima’s persistence has helped that cause tremendously!
I was called in to receive my vaccination and the administrator of the shot was very no nonsense and quick. After verifying my information for the vaccination card and asking a few questions, she pulled out the needle which, per usual, turned my stomach a bit. I hate shots! She administered the shot, rapidly applied a band aid, handed me my card after confirming my appointment for my next shot and sent me on my way. Cid was waiting outside the door to usher me to the left side of the room I had been sitting in just moments earlier. She encouraged me to take note of the time and sit down for at least 20 minutes to monitor any possible adverse reactions.
During this time, another lovely woman who I believe also works for Red Hook Family Practice delivered a quick speech about possible aches and pains and flu-like side effects. She encouraged myself and the other recipients in the “holding area” to monitor our symptoms with the mobile app provided with the paperwork and to take Zinc and Vitamin C in the weeks between the two shots to lessen the possible side effects of the second and more intense to the immune system shot.
After the 20 minutes and a few more catch up with old friends on the way out, we were on our way with one shot down and one more to go. Later that day, I DID experience some severe aching in my left arm which limited my mobility. We got a call for a last minute sunset sail later that day and, trust me when I say, it was a bit of a physical challenge. So, I’d advise taking the day off if you’re going in for a shot! After work, I felt a bit queasy and tired. But nothing I couldn’t power through in order to get home and to bed 🙂
I chose to receive the shot for a multitude of reasons. Yes, I still have to wear a mask. Yes, I will still get tested weekly as a precaution. Yes, I will have to test to return to the USVI if I leave. No, not much will change initially. But, I do long for the day when I can get on a flight and go home to see my family again without the fear of us getting each other sick. I look forward to traveling to another country again in the year to come. I look forward to the day that we can MAYBE, just maybe, go about our lives again without wandering away from a social situation wondering “Was that safe?”
I do not preach or encourage anyone to do anything against their own set of beliefs. Again, this is all a personal choice. But, I do thank the community members and government officials for practicing their due diligence in ensuring that everyone who DOES want to receive a vaccination can do just that here in the little territory that could.
All photos courtesy of Harith Wickrema and Island Green, a non-profit partner in coordinating the administration of the vaccinations on St. John.