Local volunteer recognized for helping county’s COVID response

“Arden Anderson Day”

By Katherine Nettles

From the very beginning of the Gunnison County COVID response, one particular volunteer has showed up and stood out for keeping several aspects of the response organized and well-staffed. He has also put in more than 2,500 hours of his time, with no interest in stopping until the need is truly gone. That man is Arden Anderson. 

Anderson developed systems for getting food, supplies and medications to people; developed clinic schedules and managed volunteer teams for every purpose within the county’s COVID response.

During the Gunnison County commissioner’s meeting on June 1, staff from the county’s public heath department and emergency services team recognized Anderson for his exceptional contributions and presented him with an official proclamation for a day in his honor. Commissioner Jonathan Houck read a proclamation: “There are few who have contributed as much as Arden has and received so little in return.

“Your volunteerism long predated this,” continued Houck.

Anderson is originally from California and has been in the valley for almost 40 years. He retired about 10 years ago after working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in outdoor recreation and wilderness management. He was also a 35-year volunteer with the American Red Cross, teaching First Aid, CPR and other classes. 

“I’ve always been involved with emergency services, ambulance, running a search and rescue team and dozens of other things here,” says Anderson. 

He helped write the pandemic response plan for the county almost 15 years ago, and was one of the incident site commanders during another scare, the H1N1 virus of 2009 also known as the swine flu. 

Anderson’s continuous involvement brought his name to the attention of Gunnison County emergency services director Scott Morrill when the pandemic started. Morrill approached him almost immediately, and the volunteer program Anderson has headed ever since began on the first day Gunnison County declared an emergency—March 10, 2020. 

Anderson’s role this time around became managing the long list of volunteers and keeping them organized based on abilities and availabilities. 

“We knew that we were going to need some volunteer help from the beginning,” he says. “Typically in an emergency, if we have a need, we will reach out to an adjacent area for mutual aid. And that works for a wildfire or a chemical spill that is just localized. But in a worldwide pandemic, everyone was in the same boat. We really weren’t sure how many people would answer the call for volunteers.” 

A lot of people answered that call, in fact. Before long, Anderson was overwhelmed with the response. “We had to scramble to get a system set up to organize all the people. I worked with some tech wizards who formed a database. And it didn’t take long to realize I needed help, so I got some of my volunteers to help me manage my volunteers,” says Anderson.

A true village 

To date, Anderson has counted 758 people who have given their time; it has added up to more than 25,000 hours. “That is over 5 percent of the adult population in the county!” he says. 

Anderson also joined the county’s incident command team, looking at basic things they had to cover such as public information, supporting businesses, contact tracing and making deliveries to people to keep them out of public places. 

“We staffed that system 10 hours a day, 7 days per week and trying to do that with county employees was too much, so we added volunteers. They would be on for two-hour shifts, and we added supervision, training, all kinds of things,” says Anderson.  

He also set up a system of delivery drivers. “We knew that if we wanted to control the pandemic then we couldn’t have people out in the community, so we asked them to stay home…but then we had to find a way to get supplies to them.” Drivers delivered senior meals (which included wellness checks), medications, school supplies to at-home learners, food from the food pantry and Mountain Roots and transported people to medical appointments.

Volunteers translated materials for Spanish speakers, and a cadre of volunteers sewed masks in the early days when masks were not readily available. Others teamed up to scour the Internet for grant sources for COVID response funding.

There was also a voluntary scientific inquiry team of several people regularly gathering and sifting through information and scientific data as it came in about the virus and how to minimize its spread and severity. 

“There were several of them with doctorates and who were specialists in infectious disease,” says Anderson. “When you sift through the different people in the community you come up with some pretty amazing capabilities.”

Volunteers also helped put on about 50 vaccination clinics, getting Gunnison County ahead of most of the rest of the country in vaccination numbers. 

 “Its quite an array,” he concludes of the volunteer system.

The county has now gotten at least a first dose of COVID vaccines to over 70 percent of the local population. Recently, vaccines have become available to those as young as 12 years old, increasing the eligible population.  

“So factoring those folks in we have fully vaccinated about 65 percent of our eligible population. That still puts us in the top 1 percent of counties in the U.S. with regards to vaccination rates,” says Anderson.

He credits the county’s success to strong, informed leaders whose “political courage paid off in the long run.” And of course, to the many workers and volunteers.

“I don’t think that volunteerism is something new in the Gunnison Valley. But I think that we benefit here from people who have more of a sense of community, and know that we don’t have the big bucks of a larger city…so over the years, more and more people have gotten in the habit of helping out, and that culminated with the pandemic. But when you look at the number of people who show up for clean up days, for the Center for the Arts, for trail building, for the Wildflower Festival, you see that,” says Anderson.

“I couldn’t do all of this without them. If this were an orchestra, I‘m just the conductor waving my arms around. It’s the volunteers that are playing the music.”

Anderson has made his own contribution of 460 days and is still going strong. 

“No rest for the wicked,” he jokes. 

In all seriousness, he says there is still a bit to do, with vaccination clinics going through the third week of June. “After that we will be winding down, and transitioning to normal operations. But we’ll see, we have a pretty big summer season, and people coming in from other places.” Anderson says he is really hoping to get into fall without a resurgence of cases, and to fire up an effort to vaccinate kids under 12 if the science determines it can be done. 

 “I will keep going as long as the need is there. But I wouldn’t mind toward the end of the summer if I can get out hiking more,” he adds.

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