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Samaritan Retirees Return to Support Vaccination Efforts

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“Relax and think about COVID going away,” said retired Registered Nurse Bill Howden as he prepared to inject coronavirus vaccine into the arm of a slightly nervous young woman. 

He’d taken the time to inquire about her experience with her first dose of Pfizer vaccine, asking about any side effects or concerns she might have. He invited her to take a seat, and with care Howden lined the needle up with the woman’s upper arm. When the moment was right, and the woman seemed ready, he completed the injection. 

Howden has repeated this ritual thousands of times since December when he administered the first coronavirus vaccine dose in the region to an environmental services staff member at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. He has given shots to grateful, sometimes nervous, community members at almost every one of the more than 49 mass vaccination events at Oregon State University’s Reser Stadium since early January. He’d also given shots at vaccination events in Linn County.

Howden retired from his role as vice president of patient care at Good Sam in 2019 after 15 years of working at the hospital. He was eager to help when COVID-19 vaccines became available.

“I really enjoy interacting with the people getting the vaccines – that human connection, being able to relate to them in this time,” he said. “And this is really doing something worthwhile. We are making a concrete dent in the pandemic. People are so thankful. I’ve had people break down and cry after receiving their second dose.”

Pharmacist Penny Reher also stepped up to help with the vaccination effort, in part because of Howden’s example.

“He’d been volunteering to help at Samaritan’s employee flu vaccination clinics too,” she said. “It was really Bill’s leading by example that motivated me to come back in this way.”

Reher retired as Samaritan Health Services’ chief pharmacy officer in 2020, after 29 years of working for Samaritan and a total of 40 years as a pharmacist in the Corvallis area.

Her reputation for leadership and community service is well earned, with more than eight years and two terms as president on the Oregon Board of Pharmacy and tireless support over the years for Oregon State University’s College of Pharmacy, her alma mater.

When COVID-19 vaccines were approved for emergency use, she completed more than 20 hours of classes to become a certified vaccinator and has volunteered at the majority of the events at Reser, giving vaccinations or drawing up vaccine from vials into hypodermic needles. 

“I knew vaccination was our best chance to recover from this pandemic,” she said. “I knew this is a way I could contribute.”

In the early 2000s she was an integral part of a task force that included Samaritan, county public health and other health care providers in Benton, Lincoln and Linn counties, working to get a limited supply of flu vaccines to the vulnerable community members who needed them most. 

“All these things that were put in place at that point in time have played an important role in how we as a community have responded,” she said. 

Reher and Howden have both been very impressed at how the regional mass vaccination events have been run.

“It has really been remarkable,” Reher said. 

Howden agrees. 

“I have been very impressed with the coordination between Benton County, OSU and Samaritan,” he said. “I think they have done a remarkable job and you can see it in the vaccination rates.”

Another aspect of the vaccination events both Reher and Howden appreciated was spending time with old colleagues and making new friends. 

“I have gotten to see a lot of people I have worked with before, people I have not seen for years,” Howden said.

Reher noted a silver lining.

“In my past role I didn’t get to be around a lot of the pharmacy staff on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know all the pharmacy staff and working alongside them as a teammate. I’ve just loved it – so many good people, they have filled me back up. It has just been a joy.”

After administering more than 75,000 doses, the last Benton County mass vaccination event at Reser Stadium was held on June 10. Mass vaccination events in Lincoln and Linn counties will wrap up in the coming weeks. 

Samaritan has vaccinations available on a drop-in basis at some walk-in and SamCare Express locations, as well as scheduled appointments at several Samaritan clinics and retail pharmacies. Find out more