Two local nurses, who thought they would be spending this year in retirement, administer vaccinations in the break room of a farm, as dairy cows shuffle past and look on from nearby.
Instead of relaxing after putting decades of work into public health-oriented careers, Vicki Evenson and Lynn Skatrud stepped up to the plate to return to limited-term positions with Green County Public Health when the public health emergency hit.
Their time has since been filled with long hours of contact tracing and vaccine-giving.
Day-to-day, car loaded with the bare essentials — including a duffel bag full of syringes and a state-certified cooler for the vaccine — Evenson and Skatrud hit the road to do battle with the virus, bringing the vaccine to locals.
From assisted living facilities to smaller factories, farms and businesses, they have made a wide range of house calls, to “anywhere that will have us, basically,” Evenson quipped.
Of all of their trips, Skatrud remembers one particularly fondly.
The first time they went to a dairy operation, they were setting up shop when the owner — a bigger, taller man “marched right up” and said he needed to go first, Skatrud said. His employees wanted to see him get his dose before they did.
“He got the shot, and he stayed there with every one of them while they got theirs,” she recalled.
Giving vaccines at farms like that one has been her favorite aspect of the work she has done during the pandemic, she said.
I think we’ve probably gone through every emotion in the book here, because people have gone through every emotion.Vicki Evenson
“You can tell that (the owner and employees) care about each other,” she said. “It’s just really neat.”
While some may be a bit skeptical when these public health professionals arrive, “They’re lining up to get their shots” by the end, Evenson said.
Many of the farm employees have brought in their family members and significant others to get vaccinated, as well, and sometimes those from several farms have met in one place to get vaccinated at the same time.
At some point, it became something like a social event, with candy often doled out to anyone who got a dose, Evenson said.
When they first started the vaccination push, some people cried when they got their shots — not from pain, but “because it was such a relief for them to get their vaccine, and such a weight off them,” she recalled.
“I think we’ve probably gone through every emotion in the book here, because people have gone through every emotion,” said Evenson, who started her nursing education in 1967, straight out of high school, and entered into the realm of public health by 1973.
The former Green County health officer semi-retired a dozen years ago — as she continued to teach at the college level.
“When this whole thing (with the COVID pandemic) broke, it just seemed a good fit to come back and help out,” she said.
Skatrud essentially went from one full-time job to another.
“I ‘retired’ and came here to do contact tracing,” she said. She, too, has a storied healthcare history.
“My grandma was a nurse, and (so becoming a nurse) was just something I felt that I wanted to do,” Skatrud said. She went to nursing school in 1976 and has since worked in hospital, nursing home and clinical settings — most recently spending 20 years as a clinical research manager.
Contrasting this limited-term, COVID-oriented job to those she has had previously, Skatrud said that in reality, “there’s no comparison … because this is like a whole new world” in public health.
Evenson worked through the swine flu era in the late 1970s in Beloit, but agreed that this experience has been far different.
Though healthcare workers may have clocked in 1,000 shots per day during that outbreak there, too, it was shorter-lived and didn’t have the same devastating financial effects as the COVID-19 situation, she said.
Making calls to tell people that they and their spouses wouldn’t be able to go into work for 14 days after exposure to the virus was challenging, Evenson said, since the resulting economic impacts were practically as devastating as having the disease for some families.
When they started in their current roles, Evenson and Skatrud’s primary task was to reach out to people about their exposure to COVID-19. From morning until night, they would make calls to follow-up with people who needed to quarantine after coming in close contact with it, and to check-in on those who had gotten positive test results.
“I know at one point I had 176 people on my contact list,” Skatrud said. There were a lot of long days during that time, and to make it even more challenging “people were really sick.”
At first, being a nurse and believing in science, it was kind of hard to take. ... But you kind of get immune to itLynn Skatrud on when people would profess their disbelief of COVID-19
The anxiety of awaiting test results, which could take days to come back at the onset of the pandemic, just added to the hardship for many, Evenson added.
Though some who received their calls were grateful for their advice, others were upset about having to quarantine and questioned whether the virus was a real issue, Evenson added.
“At first, being a nurse and believing in science, it was kind of hard to take” when people would profess their disbelief, Skatrud said. “But you kind of get immune to it” and continue to act as a resource, aiming to grow their knowledge.
Since the height of the pandemic, things have started to slow down.
Evenson may be “in the waning days” of her limited-term position, she said.
Though she noted that she will remain available in case there is another spike in cases, she is looking forward to resuming traveling, riding the trails on her horses and having more availability for her family.
Skatrud is excited to get the opportunity to spend extra time with her 6- and 11-year-old grandchildren.
“I want to clean my house,” too, and get a feel for what retirement is really like, she chuckled.
Being a nurse in the public health field during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a “very fatiguing” experience, Evenson said, and the COVID-induced struggles aren’t over yet.
“Now I think the challenge is getting over the political implications of getting a vaccine and getting folks convinced that this is not a political issue,” she said. “This is a health issue.”