- July 28, 2021
Each week, thousands of Manatee County seniors pile into their cars and descend upon East County’s Tom Bennett Park to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
Making those vaccinations possible have been dozens of workers from an array of organizations.
Here is a look at a few of the workers.
Johnny McKenzie grew up in Bradenton. In fact, his Boy Scout troop used to meet near Tom Bennett Park. Now, McKenzie works as an operations manager for the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, which means overseeing maintenance and custodial crews or coordinating with contractors during renovations. He’s worked for the department for 16 years.
McKenzie was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia June 3, 2019. He returned to work in January 2020 and said he felt God was giving him a second chance to go back to work. However, he said he only has about 65% of his strength back.
“It gave me a new perspective to help those that are vulnerable, like the elderly, that we're trying to target right now, as well as healthcare workers,” McKenzie said. “Having come so close to death, it just gave me a new appreciation for people who have health conditions or compromised immune systems. I get them, I feel them.”
When the department’s COVID-19 incident management team was assembled without McKenzie on it, he decided to tell the team managers he wanted to join. They were a bit concerned about his immune system considering it hadn’t been long since he finished chemotherapy, but ultimately, they let him on the team.
“To me, it's just public health at its finest,” McKenzie said. “It’s kind of what we signed up for. It's almost like the hurricane that won't go away. But this is good, because we're saving lives.”
At Tom Bennett Park, McKenzie is a safety officer who helps operate the site. That often means doing odds and ends such as transporting vaccines and patients’ paperwork, setting up the vaccine site each morning and helping with traffic control.
“I wouldn't trade it for anything,” McKenzie said. “It's a lot of long days, long hours. It's a lot of moving parts. But I still wouldn't want to be anyplace else. If I was not employed with the Health Department, I would literally be volunteering to do what I do now.”
Thomas Morgan, 67, retired and moved to Palm Aire in July 2018 from New York, where he was the chief radiation safety officer at Columbia University. He joined the Manasota Medical Reserve Corps in 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of Florida.
“I’ve moved five times in my life, and every time I have to build a new community,” Morgan said. “This is my home now. And I feel like I have a responsibility to give back to the community where I can.”
Morgan said he’s the type of person who has always given back. He works at Tom Bennett Park’s post-vaccine recovery area, monitoring recipients for 15 to 30 minutes post-vaccination to look for adverse effects. Some recipients ask him how they can get involved.
“This is a huge operation,” Morgan said. “We have between 40 and 50 people here doing this job. It's a tremendous draw on the assets of the emergency management community and the code enforcement officers. Volunteers are needed.”
Matthew Myers is a coordinator for the Manatee County Emergency Management Division, one of two who stepped forward to work at the vaccine site. If it weren’t for COVID-19, he’d be helping the rest of the division prepare for hurricane season.
“This is obviously something that no one ever thought was going to happen, to this extent at least,” Myers said. “But we're all about it. We knew we signed up for stuff like this.”
His job at Bennett Park is to ensure the entire operation is running smoothly, whether that means monitoring the assembly and deconstruction of the site each day, verifying appointments for seniors or ensuring staff members are taking care of themselves.
“If you listen to these people coming through the lines, some of them are in tears, just grateful and happy that we're here to do this,” Myers said.
Venice resident Symphony O’Keefe has been working for the Manasota Medical Reserve Corps since 2002 after retiring from her position as school health nursing supervisor Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County.
She has been giving injections at Tom Bennett Park, usually giving somewhere between 50 and 90 vaccines in a given day. When O’Keefe sees how happy seniors are to receive the vaccine from her, it makes her want to tell other people in the community not to give up on eventually receiving their own vaccines.
“Just because I'm retired from the Health Department doesn't mean I'm not still a nurse,” O’Keefe said. “I'm not sitting home and eating bonbons or anything. It’s going to sound silly, but I feel compelled to do this. It's fulfilling to know that you're able to help other people and make a difference.”