Like many Illinoisans, Bernadette Engram spent most of 2020 at home to help stymie the spread of COVID-19 and protect herself and her community. But she also wanted to do more.
“My heart just wanted to help,” Engram says.
In February she started volunteering at the Franklin-Williamson Bi-County Health Department’s mass vaccination clinic in downstate Marion twice a week. Engram, a registered nurse, worked in a hospital pediatric unit before joining Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois as a unit manager of clinical operations.
She's one of more than 100 clinicians who work at BCBSIL who registered to volunteer with Illinois Helps, an emergency system for advance registration of volunteer health professionals. Once the state verifies their credentials and they identify a volunteer opportunity, BCBSIL pays for up to 80 hours spent volunteering to give COVID-19 vaccines.
“COVID has impacted so many lives,” Engram says. That includes her own — her father-in-law died from COVID-19 in January, just as the vaccines were becoming available. “When they asked for clinical volunteers, I knew I had to step up and use my background to assist.”
BCBSIL established the volunteer program as part of a broad array of efforts to help get as many Illinoisans as possible protected against the deadly disease.
“We realized that vaccination was the next step to help our members and communities get well,” says Darlene Gerster, vice president of clinical operations at BCBSIL. Gerster, who is a registered nurse, is a driving force behind getting clinicians who work at BCBSIL signed up to help with vaccination efforts.
The employee volunteer program is the latest way BCBSIL is helping increase access to COVID-19 vaccines. Access Community Health Network is using two BCBSIL Blue Door Neighborhood Center locations in Chicago as vaccination sites. And earlier this year, the Chicago Department of Public Health worked with the Care Van Program to launch a mobile response team to immunize front-line essential workers against COVID-19.
And under its #VaccTogether campaign, BCBSIL is awarding grants to community organizations to support access to COVID-19 vaccination, testing and education.
“We’re doing everything we can to support the health and wellness of our community, members and employees,” Gerster says.
Engram drew vaccines from vials so they were ready to be given to attendees of the mass vaccination clinic serving about 105,000 Illinoisans who live in Franklin and Williamson counties. The Bi-County Health Department announced it would change its vaccination strategy mid-May, planning to close its off-site mass vaccination clinic and offering vaccinations at the health department building instead.
About 34% of the Illinois population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of May 7, according to state health officials.
Engram says she’s grateful she could use her nursing skills to play a role in protecting her community.
“This was my calling, and this was a way to make an impact as we move forward and hopefully eradicate this disease,” she says. “It feels like life is coming back.”