Grand Forks couple volunteers in COVID-19 vaccination effort, a 'silver lining' for public health workers
Consistency and commitment to the COVID vaccination effort by Dr. Brad and Gayle Aafedt has been "refreshing and energizing for our team," said Debbie Swanson, director of Grand Forks Public Health
GRAND FORKS — Gayle Aafedt remembers a gentleman who came to the Grand Forks Public Health COVID vaccination site in late January. Aafedt was in the midst of a shift as a volunteer at the site.
“He came in and sat down and said, ‘This is my first shot. My sister died yesterday from COVID, so I needed to come in and get my first shot. I needed to get this process started. I don’t want any more sadness in my family,’ ” she said.
“I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of, ‘It’s been sad enough in our family; I need to get the shots so this doesn’t happen again.’ ”
For nearly a year, she and her husband, Dr. Brad Aafedt, a retired radiologist, have volunteered for the vaccination effort – she registers people seeking the shot and he screens them and gives the shots.
The Aafedts, who are natives of Grand Forks, have been volunteering since last March, first with the Grand Forks Public Health mass inoculation site at the Alerus Center and, more recently, at the agency’s vaccination site at the Grand Cities Mall.
“This is one way that we can help our community by actually doing something,” Gayle said.
“By helping to do the injection or sitting there and getting somebody registered. I’m actually doing something to help one more person get one more shot, and then that’s one more step going to the next phase of this pandemic, to get us through this pandemic.
“For me, that’s one of the reasons why I volunteered to do this because I can actually do something. Then relieve other people from County Health to do other jobs. Because this has just been so much for all of us,” Gayle said.
Gayle and Brad Aafedt grew up in Grand Forks and graduated from Grand Forks Central and Red River high schools, respectively, both in 1982.
Volunteering in this way “has been rewarding” for both of them, she said.
Filling a critical need
The Aafedts decided to lend a hand as volunteers after hearing news reports about the need for retired doctors and nurses to assist with the rollout of the vaccine, part of the effort to inoculate as many people as possible.
“The pandemic has been affecting all of us in just about every bit of our lives,” said Brad, who initially offered his services to Debbie Swanson, director the Grand Forks Public Health, but soon learned that help was needed in logistics and computer work, registering people and entering data.
“I was pretty sure Gayle could be useful, too,” Brad said.
Gayle, who holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UND, had experience working for 3M in the Twin Cities, where she was part of a team that implemented a new computer system in one of the company’s manufacturing facilities, she said.
During the interview with Grand Forks Public Health, “I said, ‘Yep, I’m familiar with computers. I think I can handle this. I’m not afraid of the computer,’ ” Gayle recalled.
After going through the vetting process for volunteers, and after getting fully vaccinated, they assumed their respective roles at the Alerus Center’s vaccination site. At that time, they recalled, there was a generally positive response to vaccination.
“I would say 90 to 95% were so excited – some of them had tears in their eyes. They were just excited to get it done,” Gayle said.
Since last fall, they have seen more people who said their employer required them to get the shot, “but I would say the vast majority want to be there,” Gayle said. Many commented that they are glad to get vaccinated so they could return to normal activities and be in school with their friends.
During the past year, the Aafedts have worked at least one shift a week, usually a half-day. Since October, they have worked more shifts per week, depending on their availability. They’ve also filled in to cover lunch breaks and unforeseen staffing shortages.
They were on hand when the demand for COVID vaccination reached its highest levels. Last spring at the Alerus, “our biggest day was 2,100 people that we vaccinated,” said Theresa Knox, a Grand Forks Public Health employee who coordinated staff and volunteers there.
“You had to be on your toes. You had interactions with the public, you had to keep up with changing electronic record-keeping systems.”
“I remember Brad said, ‘I’m familiar with needles, even bigger than these needles, so these needles are nothing,’ ” Knox said. “So he wanted to help where help was needed.”
Their duties included educating the community, she said, and for Brad, learning the contraindications for vaccination and giving advice on what their next steps would be. He had to stay up to date on COVID recommendations and learn the technical aspects of entering data into the electronic record, she said. “So they had to be pretty versatile and up-to-date.”
‘I could count on them’
About the Aafedts, Knox said, “I can’t say enough good things about them – they’re reliable, they’re professional, they’re kind. They were pleasant to their co-workers and pleasant to the public. And we came to rely on them actually, where sometimes you can’t rely on people, but the fact that we could relieved a lot of my stress. Knowing that they were on the schedule meant that that lane was going to be taken care of; I could count on them.”
Because they live close to the Alerus, “they said, just give us a call, we can run over,” Knox said. “So even when they were not on the schedule, they were available.”
Hundreds answered the call for volunteers but many, for various reasons, dropped out, Knox said. “We had a lot of people on the list that we never really saw there, but the Aafedts persisted.”
“They were more proactive – they weren’t waiting for an opportunity for us to call them, they were looking for an opportunity to help,” Knox said. “Of all the people that I was interfacing with, these two kept saying, ‘How about this?’ or ‘Do you have everything you need for that?’
“They are the silver lining to this pandemic experience for us in public health in Grand Forks,” Knox said. “People like them have really renewed my faith in the kindness of humanity, that they’re willing to go above and beyond.
“Of all the volunteers who were volunteering from the beginning, they are the only unpaid volunteers (that continued),” said Knox, who recently retired as nursing and nutrition supervisor for GFPH.
‘Shouting into the wind’
“One of the things that those of us on public health and on the front lines of a global pandemic, we have felt sometimes like we’re shouting into the wind where the community doesn’t support the information, they don’t want to hear about it, they don’t want to hear about mitigation strategies," Knox said. “So having (people), like the Aafedts, who believe in what you’re doing, to the point that they are willing to give of themselves, is so supportive in a time when there’s a vacuum sometimes of support.”
The “persistence and patience” of the Aafedts’ volunteerism is unusual, Swanson said. “The consistency and their willingness to continue to show up every week, that’s been refreshing and energizing for our team.”
“They bring a skill set that’s very mature, it’s very professional. They serve as mentors to others at our site who are new public health professionals, and, in the case of Dr. Aafedt, he’s very knowledgeable about the science behind infectious diseases and the science of vaccinations and the technical aspects,” Swanson said. “The other value that is huge is their pleasant personalities that welcome people to an environment where there may be some anxiety, getting vaccinations. We also appreciate their strong commitment to making our community a healthy one.”
Relieving staff members who are over-stressed is also greatly appreciated, Swanson said. Many public health staff members haven’t been able to take time off. And for others, the time off they get is limited, she said.
Looking back, the rollout of the vaccination effort in early 2021 “was a really really stressful time and their offer to be engaged came at a really important time,” Swanson said. “And I think it’s also testimony to their generosity in the community and the fact that they like to do things kind of behind the scenes without a lot of attention to what they give to Grand Forks.”
Although the demand for vaccination has dropped off, there’s still a need, Gayle said. “We still have people coming in for their first-time vaccination,” as well as teens and children, who must have parental permission and be accompanied by a parent.
Brad said, “I love helping everybody who comes in, but it makes me so happy when a first-timer comes in and says, ‘It’s time to get this going.’ ”
The Aafedts bristle at the negativity that public health staff members have endured.
“These people from County Health have taken such a beating,” Brad said. “There’s been a lot of support, but there’s been a lot of just nastiness thrown their way. These people work so hard, and they get either zero or one days off a week, and they’ve done this for so long. If me working an extra shift gets somebody a day off, boy – in addition to helping the community – just giving these people a chance to breathe, that makes such a difference, I think. At least for me, that’s really why I wanted to help out too.”
Also, Gayle said, “We’re both scientists. I’m an engineer; he’s a doctor. Our work was based in science, and so by helping to do the vaccinations, we are backing up the science that is out there and the tens of thousands of scientists that have been working on this. This technology has been developed over years.
“We support the science and we want to continue to support the science, because the science is winning – and that’s what’s going to get us out of this pandemic and moving forward.”
Gayle attributes vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance to get vaccinated – to “misinformation,” she said. “Vaccination has proven you are at less risk to get ill or be hospitalized, or even death.”
Brad said, “It’s an issue that has become politicized that really never should have become politicized. It’s a medical and public health problem, it’s not a political issue.”
“Science isn’t political; science is fact,” Gayle said.
“It’s like that gentleman who came in,” she said. “It finally took his sister’s death to convince him (that) he needed to get the vaccine.”