A record for single-day victories in Lane Stadium was likely achieved on Thursday.

“Every shot in the arm is a win,” said Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Valley Health District. “The more people you get vaccinated, the less the disease is circulating because the fewer people you have vulnerable to infection.”

By that measure, there were about 3,500 wins recorded during the COVID-19 vaccine clinic for Virginia Tech students held in the stadium. Most students were ushered through Gate 3 to one of 64 vaccine administrators below the East Stands in less than 10 minutes and on their way after the recommended 15-minute post-shot wait.

“The scenario is surreal, just seeing all the personnel and coordination,” said Tony Lin, a fourth-year student studying architecture. “It’s really cool to see the amount of people mobilized for this.”

The event, which was announced less than a week in advance, was the largest vaccine clinic ever held in the New River Valley. It was organized and overseen by the combined effort the New River Task Force and the New River Health District and fueled by a spirit of community volunteerism.

“Most communities are in similar positions right now, trying to navigate an ever-changing supply of the vaccine on an expediated timeline,” said Michael Mulhare, Virginia Tech’s assistant vice president for emergency management. “The incredible efforts of the New River Heath District and New River Public Health Task Force to deliver vaccines and the ability, and willingness of the Virginia Tech community – from top-level administrators to volunteers – to remain adaptable is what allows us to meet the challenge of vaccinating students.”

Blacksburg Chief of Police Anthony Wilson said the day’s unified work mirrored that of the overall effort of the partners to fight the spread of COVID-19 in the region. Wilson co-chairs the task force with Bissell, which was formed last year to organize the community's response to the pandemic. Representatives from Virginia Tech also serve on the task force.

“This is how we’ve done the entire New River Valley; it’s been one continuous outreach project,” Wilson said. “If folks want to know the secret to how we got so many folks vaccinated and how we were able to have such a successful clinic today, it’s this combination of everybody from all different walks of life coming together to make sure we all do it.”

Thursday’s clinic included more than 140 volunteers from the Virginia Tech community, with about 40 percent of those being students, said Holly Lesko, public health school liaison for the New River Health District.

“We wanted to provide the opportunity for the Tech students to engage with the process, as well as get the vaccine,” Lesko said.

Several campus groups helped facilitate the call for student volunteers, including VT Engage: The Center for Leadership and Service Learning.

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“Advancing community priorities is something we really lean into,” said Catherine Cotrupi, assistant director of VT Engage.  “It’s at the core of the service learning courses we work with and also the co-curricular programs we offer.”

Assisting the task force by elevating the call for volunteers for Thursday’s vaccine clinic fit right in line with the department’s desire to respond to the needs voiced by those in the community.

“We really try to teach our students to work with the community to identify ways they can connect to and support initiatives, rather than us as outsiders deciding what a community's priorities are,” Cotrupi said. “These clinics are an opportunity for students and employees to do just that. The New River Health District called with a request for volunteers, and we have been able to respond to meet their goals.”

As vaccination clinics continue in the coming months, student volunteers can register to help via VT Engage’s Partner Volunteer Opportunities page.

As the emails and social media calls went out for volunteers for Thursday, students, such as Kali Hobbs, were quick to respond.

“I just got the email and it was like, we need volunteers, and I was like, why not,” said Hobbs, a junior studying human nutrition, foods, and exercise who served as a registration checker, Thursday. “I just wanted to help out. Community service has always been a big thing to me. It’s exciting.”

Each student received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine and instructions on how to follow up for their second dose, either in Blacksburg or elsewhere.

Bissell said vaccinating the student population was a high priority now that Virginia was in the second phase of the vaccination process because of their potential to spread COVID-19, not only in the New River Valley, but elsewhere as the spring semester concludes.

“Quite honestly, when they’re here during the semester, they tend to socialize with each other and when they’ve have had COVID, they’ve pretty much kept it among the students,” Bissell said. “But once they disperse, they’re going to be seeing higher risk people, and so it’s really important to have them vaccinated.”

Wilson said the students getting vaccinated was just another example of Hokies stepping up and doing the right thing during the pandemic.

“I’ll tell you, from a police standpoint, I couldn’t be prouder of our students … They’ve been fantastic about protecting themselves and our community,” he said. “Our young people were seen as a threat when they first came back … We haven’t seen what everyone was afraid of and this is just one more piece. I think this is going to be a huge factor in bringing us back together as one total community.”

Stepping up to help was at the forefront of Yohanese Nigatu’s mind when he decided to get the vaccine in Lane Stadium on Thursday.

“This is life or death, so we need to get it as soon as possible,” said Nigatu, a sophomore studying medicinal chemistry. “Millions of people have lost their lives, so we need to be safe.”

Similarly, Meriel Carney said when she received a friend’s text about the clinic, she was quick to seize the opportunity to play a role in the community achieving herd immunity.

“I jumped online and half of the spots were already gone and the email [about the clinic] was only maybe 10 minutes old,” Carney said.

Though happy with the overall process, Carney did have one suggestion for future Lane Stadium clinics.

“They should play ‘Enter Sandman’ as you’re coming in,” she said.

Though an excellent Hokie hype song, the chorus line, “exit light,” doesn’t quite fit the message  of this tremendous effort in Lane Stadium.

“I hope it gives the community some confidence that we really are seeing that light at the end of the tunnel,” Bissell said.

— Written by Travis Williams

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