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‘If they need help, I will go’: Retired nurses are a force in Anchorage’s vaccination push

“Being a nurse is really a part of my identity, it’s who I am,” Tina DeLapp said in mid-February between patients at the Anchorage School District COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine flew out of syringes and into arms by the hundreds, and some days by the thousand.

“This clinic would not be possible without the volunteer nurses,” said Emelyn Hudson, health care services nurse coordinator at ASD.

The school district vaccine clinic opened Jan. 6 and is expected to stay open as long as it continues to receive vaccines, said health care services director Jennifer Patronas. “We think we’re in it for the long haul,” she said.

According to DeLapp, the majority of volunteers giving vaccinations at the school district are retired nurses who help fill in on weekdays when school nurses are at work.

Offering words of encouragement, and sometimes a hand to hold, nurses efficiently handled the noon rush on Thursday as a line of patients filled tables.

The nurses’ stories vary, but all share the same desire to help the community. Meet some of the Anchorage nurses who came out of retirement to volunteer at vaccination clinics.

Tina DeLapp

Former director of the UAA School of Nursing for eight years. UAA faculty member for nearly 30 years.

Retired (from full-time work): 2004

Tina DeLapp. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Several times a week last year, Tina DeLapp would meet in a hospital parking lot with a friend who worked in an intensive care unit and give her cookies to share with the other nurses. It was what DeLapp could do to help, out of clinical practice and having never been an ICU nurse.

The pandemic trudged on, and the cookies were plentiful. Then the vaccine arrived in Alaska.

Once DeLapp was fully vaccinated, she started calling clinics to see if they needed a volunteer. She got notice of a call put out by the Alaska Nurses Association for volunteers at the ASD clinic who held active nursing licenses.

In order to remain active, nurses must complete 30 contact hours of continuing professional education in addition to 60 hours of professionally related community service every two years, DeLapp said. DeLapp renewed her license at the end of 2020 and has already completed her community service hours for the next license year.

“I gave the first shot and, a moment of nervousness because it had been so long,” she said. “Muscle memory won out.”

Since Feb. 4, DeLapp has vaccinated roughly 350 people, she estimated.

DeLapp remembers people lining up for the polio vaccine in the ‘50s when she was a child — an effort her mother had a hand in as a school nurse in Arizona.

“It feels good to be making the community safer,” she said. “I wish my mother was alive so I could tell her about it.”

Elizabeth Blair

Alaska Regional Hospital registered nurse. She also worked for the state of Alaska doing cancer surveillance.

Retired: 2008

Elizabeth Blair. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Elizabeth Blair, 73, stood in line on a 25-degree winter day this January to get her vaccine.

“I was so grateful to get it,” she said.

During retirement, Blair volunteers as a parish nurse and maintains her nursing license.

“I can no longer do those 9- and 10-hour days,” she said.

Since January, Blair has volunteered part time at a number of vaccine clinics — ASD, Alaska Airlines Center, Blood Bank of Alaska, the state fairgrounds in Palmer and at a hotel clinic set up to vaccinate those in transient housing.

“The people are so wonderful and so grateful,” she said.

When asked how many people she’s vaccinated, without hesitation she said, “Oh, Lord, I don’t count,” with a chuckle.

“I’m amazingly impressed at how Anchorage was able to pull it off,” Blair said about the vaccination effort.

Pattie Welch

Former Providence Alaska Medical Center pediatric intensive care unit nurse and ASD nurse.

Retired: 2016

Pattie Welch. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Pattie Welch, 67, knew when the pandemic hit that she wanted to be a part of the volunteer effort. “(It’s) a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help out,” she said.

She’s been volunteering at the ASD and Mountain View Urgent Care clinics since early January, something that made her son nervous, Welch said.

“It just didn’t matter,” she said of volunteering before she was vaccinated. “I felt like I had to be out there.”

Welch is continually impressed by the nurses who work full time and volunteer at the clinics on their days off.

“We just feel like we have a skill, we have something to offer,” she said of nurses. “It doesn’t go away when you’re retired.”

Ginny Hepola

Former Providence Alaska Medical Center labor and delivery nurse.

Retired: 2019

Ginny Hepola. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

In the span of a month, Ginny Hepola retired and welcomed the birth of her first grandson. That was in 2019. Now, she’s back to work, vaccinating hundreds of Anchorage residents.

Once the COVID-19 virus reached Alaska, she reached out to colleagues at Providence but was told the staffing was secure. “I felt like, ‘If they need me, I will go,’” she said.

Like DeLapp, Hepola wanted to volunteer but lacked options. Then, volunteers were sought as vaccine clinics opened.

Hepola received her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Feb. 2 at the Alaska Airlines Center and immediately drove to ASD to begin volunteering.

She’s lost track of the number of people she’s vaccinated but knows it’s at least 300.

“I feel like I’m helping the world, in a small way ... (to) get this virus over with,” she said.