With a veterans population approaching 20,000 in the area, the North Florida/South Georgia Department of Veterans Affairs Health System’s began offering COVID-19 vaccinations at Villages Outpatient Clinic. But because of social distancing protocols, the clinic had to reduce its capacity for other procedures and appointments that take place at the clinic.
Fortunately, also located in nearby Lady Lake is the world’s largest American Legion post, Veterans Memorial Post 347. With both a large meeting room and parking lot, the post looked like a perfect location for the clinic to expand its vaccination operation.
So the clinic reached out to the post, which spent little time debating how to respond.
“To us, this was a no-brainer. Not one member of the executive committee said no when we brought it to them,” Post 347 First Commander Joan Suelter said. “The (Villages Outpatient Clinic) is a good-sized facility, but in order to handle the vaccine, they would have to shut down other portions of the medical portion of it. They do MRIs up there, bloodwork, for all our veterans. So some of those services would have to have been curtailed. And parking is very limited up there.”
By chance, Suelter said she was approached in Post 347’s parking lot by Dr. Brian Pinkston, The Villages Chief Medical Officer and a member of Post 347, about the clinic’s shortage of space for the vaccinations. Suelter immediately reached out to Post Commander Al Varrone, a member of The American Legion’s National Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission, and Post Adjutant Mike Seidel to let them know about Pinkston’s dilemma and a possible solution.
“Al jumped all over it,” Suelter said. “The train left the station immediately when Al got it. He’s been the runner of this program, and I’ve been backing him up 100 percent because I believe in what we’re doing.”
Via VA press release, Pinkston said joining up with Post 347 “began out of necessity. Since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, our capacity inside the clinic has been reduced to allow for social distancing, which has created some new challenges for us.”
With both a meeting room encompassing thousands of square feet, as well as a parking lot large enough to serve as the starting point for hundreds of motorcycles on the 2019 American Legion Legacy Run, Post 347 was a perfect fit for VA.
“Collaboration with our community partners allows us to remain agile, receptive, and relevant to the veterans we serve across our catchment area,” Florida/South Georgia Health System Director Thomas Wisnieski said via press release. “We are very fortunate to be partnering with American Legion Post 347.”
VA staff came to set up Post 347 for the vaccination effort, working through the logistics of social distancing protocols. Post leadership met with VA staff via phone calls and Zoom meetings to work out the details.
The first batch of 80 vaccines were distributed on Jan. 28 at the post. Suelter said the hope was for two more vaccination sessions Feb. 4 and 5 before possibly transitioning to daily, including Saturdays, provided there are enough vaccines.
“This is one of our Four Pillars,” Suelter said. “And the relationship we have with (VA staff) is unbelievable. What better way for us to take care of veterans but through this program? This is exciting stuff.”
While Post 347 is serving as a vaccine site, two Missouri American Legion posts have opened up their facilities to provide COVID-19 testing.
Starting Feb. 1, American Legion Post 397 in Creve Coeur, Mo., will be a testing site for a collaboration between Visit Healthcare and the Kaufman Fund. The site will be open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. All forms of insurance are accepted, but uninsured individuals will be accepted and tested at no charge. No appointment is necessary but it is recommended to sign up in advance at visithealthcare.com.
And Roscoe Enloe Post 5 in Jefferson City, Mo., is providing free testing through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and Cole County. Testing dates are 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 17, March 3 and March 19. To register for testing, visit health.mo.gov/communitytest or call (919) 351-6256.