Retired volunteers are key soldiers in Springfield’s army of COVID-19 fighters

Published: Jul. 1, 2021 at 7:25 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - It has taken a lot of people and a monumental effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what many of us may not realize is that some of the biggest unsung heroes of that effort are retirees, many from the health care industry, who are volunteering their time to do everything from contact tracing to running vaccination clinics.

From her office on the ninth floor at Cox North Tower high above Springfield, Cindy Kunkel is a contact tracer with the Springfield-Greene Co. Health Department who had worked for 30 years for the Food and Drug Administration in Kansas City before retiring to Springfield.

“It seemed ironic that I retired just a few months before the biggest event in public health in the last hundred years,” she said of the timing involved. “I watched a lot of my friends who were still working respond to it and be sent out to work on the pandemic and I hated just sitting back and watching them. I wanted to see a way where I could help too.”

So instead of enjoying a life of leisure, she’s busy contacting COVID-19 patients to find out who they’ve been in contact with.

It involves a lot of phone calls and data gathering which doesn’t sound like much of a way to take it easy.

“Well, I wasn’t retired for too long so I’ve been told that I failed,” she said with a laugh. “A few friends told me I didn’t do it right because I came right back. But I’m glad to come back and help out. I know it’s a short-term thing although it’s turned into several months.”

Meanwhile at the South Street Christian Church on Thursday a vaccination clinic was being held and most of the volunteers there were retirees as well.

There are three areas where people are needed at a clinic: registration, giving shots and the 15-minute observation period afterwards.

This event was put on by the Jordan Valley Community Health Clinic where about 25 retirees are ready to serve on a moments notice.

So what would they be doing if they weren’t running a vaccine clinic?

“Sitting at home,” said Steve Gardner, a retired minister.

“Going to a bingo game at Sertoma,” said Scott Chappell, who retired from 3M.

Instead they were staffing the observation area where they timed the vaccine recipients to make sure they were not having an adverse reaction.

Chappell pointed out that most of the retirees in the room volunteered at other organizations as well.

“This is an amazing group because there’s a lot of volunteerism in this group,” he said. “It’s something that keeps you active. To be honest, when we hopefully get everybody vaccinated, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Staying active in retirement is important for me,” Gardner agreed. “I don’t want to just vegetate.”

Husband and wife Gene Davison and Linda Halford are also active in many volunteer efforts. As a retired nurse, Halford believes a lot of health care workers had it in their DNA to heed the call to fight COVID-19.

“We did that out of commitment to our profession,” she said.

“We were like everybody else when COVID first hit,” Davison added. “We were scared. We didn’t know anything about it. But we also knew that it was devastating our communities and people had to step up and fight against COVID so we could eventually get back to what the new normal might be.”

“I think every health care organization in Springfield has benefited from this wealth of knowledge and experience that has come out of retirement to help fight this pandemic,” said Aaron Schekorra, Springfield-Greene County’s Public Health Information Administrator. “I’m not sure we could have accomplished what we’ve accomplished without them.”

“We would be in trouble,” agreed Bob Stephens, a former Springfield Mayor who coordinates the mobile COVID-19 vaccination unit that’s a partnership between the health department, Jordan Valley and the Greene County Medical Society. “I don’t know that I could find people who could come out on a moment’s notice like these folks do. They do a great job because most of them have spent their lives working and know what it’s like to show up on time and do paperwork. And that’s basically what they have to do here because it is a federal program and they keep pretty close tabs on it.”

But while these volunteers are all giving their time to help save lives, some of them are frustrated that others aren’t doing their part to save lives because they choose not to get vaccinated.

“We have the vaccine. We have the givers. And no one comes,” Halford said with a sigh. “That’s disappointing.”

“Some people are just not going to accept that there is a greater good that can be achieved by getting a vaccination,” Davison added. “I understand people are hesitant but we have to look at the bigger picture. The selfishness of people in not doing what they can to help us end this pandemic when we know what will end the pandemic and just the denial that there’s even a pandemic that has killed 600,000-plus Americans and is refilling our hospitals as we speak. That’s very disheartening that people are so callus about their fellow man.”

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