The way Melissa Smith sees it, the coronavirus pandemic presents an opportunity for business leaders to demonstrate their dedication to the communities where they operate.

“It’s probably the biggest call to action in my lifetime,” said Smith, the president and CEO of Portland-based Wex Inc.

Wex CEO Melissa Smith Press Herald file photo

The current drive to vaccinate millions of Americans against the virus is just another facet of that call to action, she said. And, Smith said, Wex and other large companies in southern Maine are answering it.

Smith, who serves on the board of directors of the state’s largest health care system, MaineHealth, said she has been asking the health care provider how others can help in combating the virus and getting the COVID-19 vaccine administered to thousands of Mainers. So at a recent meeting, when she heard details about the large vaccination center MaineHealth was setting up at the former Scarborough Downs racetrack, she saw an opportunity.

Wex and other large businesses could provide volunteer staff to help run the center, Smith said, leaving MaineHealth to focus on having doctors, nurses and others qualified to administer the vaccine do their thing. People who aren’t health professionals could operate check-in stations for those showing up for their shots and guide them through the process up to and beyond getting a needle in the arm, she reasoned.

Since businesses issued the call late last month, hundreds have signed up to become volunteers. They start their work at the center with a brief training session, which involves a run-through of the center. The volunteers help those who are getting vaccinations check in and have their appointments verified, fill out some paperwork, go to a waiting area, get vaccinated and then spend 15 to 30 minutes in an observation area to make sure they don’t have an immediate adverse reaction to the shot.

“They’re doing whatever is needed” and seem eager to help, Smith said. Volunteers also get to experience a change from the monthslong routine of avoiding others for fear of contracting the virus.

“People are hungry to help and are grateful that they’re part of this experience,” Smith said. Those who are told they’re being scheduled to volunteer at the center “feel like they’ve won the lottery, getting a chance to go.”

Smith asked executives of large companies to seek volunteers from their workforce, figuring it would be easier for them to free up personnel. Many larger companies, including Wex, provide employees some paid time for volunteer activities.

But, Smith said, the initial email she sent out has apparently been shared with people at smaller companies, who are also eager to help.

“A highlight for me is how well the business community is working together,” she said.

Wex, Unum and L.L. Bean have come up with about 500 volunteers altogether, and other companies that are stepping forward include MEMIC, Camden National Bank and the Portland Sea Dogs, she said.

The response has been so strong that many are being told to expect to be asked to volunteer at the center in a month or two, rather than immediately. Once vaccine supplies pick up, the center is expected to vaccinate hundreds of people a day, and the need for volunteers to help out will grow as well.

That’s also the expectation of Jodi-ann Johnson, Wex’s director of corporate planning. She has been given the task of coordinating the volunteer effort, and Johnson said she’s well aware that the need for help will increase as the vaccination effort ramps up.

“This is a marathon and not a sprint,” she said.

Johnson said she has left it up to the individual companies to decide who is available for shifts right away and who should wait a few weeks to help out.

Johnson herself has volunteered twice since the center opened on Wednesday. She said the volunteers get a safety briefing before each shift to make sure they are up to date on protocols and remember to follow them.

Safety is the key concern for MaineHealth, said Kathleen Taggersell, the company’s senior director of corporate communications.

“We’re incredibly grateful” for the volunteer help, she said, and MaineHealth doesn’t want to see the effort marred by any of the volunteers getting sick.

She said MaineHealth has assigned titles for three classes of volunteers: greeters, who do the check-ins; flow managers, who make sure people are moving through the process correctly; and observers, who keep an eye on patients after their vaccinations.

Johnson was a greeter during her two stints at the center last week but said she feels like “Willy Wonka” might be a more apt description for her role.

“They’ve gotten the golden ticket,” she says of those who show up to be vaccinated and are happy to experience some relief from the pandemic.


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