When Team Rubicon joined forces with five other organizations to form the Veterans Coalition for Vaccination in February, providing logistical support to vaccination sites across the country, Greyshirt and Team Rubicon Portland, OR, Metro Administrator William “Maverick” Johnson didn’t hesitate to sign up for an operation. He did, however, hesitate to get his own shot.
Vaccine hesitancy is not uncommon, particularly with new vaccines. As a Black man, Maverick had plenty of reasons for reluctance, including some steeped in history. There was the fact that the Black community had been the subject of medical experimentation in the past, including with the Tuskegee experiment. And, there was the unknown. Initially, says Maverick, he didn’t have reliable information on how the vaccine affected the Black community, especially since COVID-19 was rampant in communities of color.
Yet Maverick—who works with Hillsboro school district and his passionate about helping special needs students earn a high school diploma—says he changed his mind, slowly, as more data was released. Soon he was setting his personal concerns aside in favor of the greater good. “I manned up. Doing my part was what it came down to,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘What is my responsibility to my community?’ And my responsibility was to get vaccinated.”
Now, he’s focused on getting shots in arms in the Portland metro area, where Team Rubicon has partnered with Kaiser Permanente and FEMA to run mass vaccination clinics. It was an entirely new experience for Maverick. He had deployed with Team Rubicon a half dozen times before the pandemic but had never seen so many volunteers put themselves at such personal risk to help their communities.
“When you go on regular operations, you don’t really see harm’s way. I don’t feel my safety is at a risk. But all the volunteers on the vaccination ops, they stand out in public and possibly subject themselves to COVID. Not everybody would do that.”
While Team Rubicon does not identify vaccination operations as high-risk for volunteers, it does acknowledge there is an increased risk of exposure for anyone serving the public in such a capacity.
It was while helping set up a vaccination clinic in Portland on the day that he was scheduled to receive his second shot that Maverick noticed that fellow Greyshirt Debby Benjamin, an RN, happened to be working for Kaiser administering vaccinations. They had served together in the Portland area previously, and Maverick considered her a mentor. He had always admired her style of leadership and, more importantly, considered her a friend.
“I was walking around and thinking if I have to get the second shot, I want Debby to do it,” he said.
With a 47-year nursing career under her belt, 20 of which she spent in the Air Force Nurse Corps, no one could be better equipped than Benjamin to put a nervous patient at ease. Maverick texted her before the event kicked off and they made arrangements for him to be her first shot of the day, before the doors opened to the public.
Benjamin was delighted to give him his shot. “Whether it’s Maverick or any of the people who I have had the privilege to help, I appreciate having the chance to put people in a more comfortable position, to be able to get out and on with their lives,” Benjamin said.
For Maverick, having a friend conclude his shot series was especially meaningful. His COVID year had not been easy. Schools were shuttered, putting a pause to his work. He had two businesses go under. “I was home and I got carried away with the television,” he said. But now that he has been fully vaccinated, things are looking up.
“It was very special to have Debby give me my shot, especially since I had reservations early on. What we learned through leadership and being team players and teammates is that we have to take care of each other.”
“It was a privilege to be Maverick’s nurse,” Debby said. “I was happy to be able to give him his best shot.”