Pharmacy & Healthcare

Tales from the road to vaccine equity

Eugene Russell drove a bus-turned-COVID-19 vaccine center across the U.S. These were the highlights.
Sarah Cason, Walgreens Stories
After 19 years driving carrier and coach buses, you start to learn a few things, like what gas stations are the cleanest, and just how important it is to know which side the fuel tank is on before making a pit stop. When tapped by his supervisor at charter bus company Yankee Line, Eugene Russell considered himself well-prepared to drive a coach bus across the country for Walgreens. But unlike a normal driving gig, where a driver can deal with complex traffic, unwieldy passengers or loneliness, Russell had new and unexpected responsibilities on his plate.

Over the course of eight weeks, Russell drove a bus outfitted with COVID-19 vaccine stations from Washington D.C. to Portland, Ore. At each of the 18 cities on his route, he greeted patients, set up waiting areas and played the role of confidante for those nervous about getting a shot. The cities were selected due to higher concentrations of medically underserved areas, where access to COVID-19 vaccines can often be challenging. Bringing vaccines directly to neighborhoods where they’re needed most, paired with the freedom of offering walk-up appointments, is one of the latest tactics Walgreens has used to advance vaccine equity.

map of vaccine clinic route
For a person who spends 51 weeks out of the year on the road, Russell embraced the opportunity to travel at his own pace and use his friendly, welcoming demeanor for good. He reflects on some of his favorite memories from a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

A generational calling

Eugene driving bus“My mom used to drive buses, and I watched her drive all my life. So driving was second nature to me before I realized I was actually good at it and enjoy doing it. She’s very proud of me. She's always been a very supportive person, since she knows the industry and what it’s like to be away from home for long periods of time. It can be hard on my family because they don't see me that much, but they know I'm out here helping people.

“I have no problem lending my hand. I wouldn't say this job was something I imagined doing, but it was something I took personally. Some close family members of mine had COVID. I was fortunate not to, but it hit home because of the situation with my family.”

A task – and tent – master

“I never knew quite how any day would play out. I got on a call in the morning, listened to the feedback, listened to where I needed to go and played it by ear. The setup would kind of be the same in each city, and we had to tweak or modify it for easy access for patients. I like the fact that I had control and could make decisions. I set up the tents, tables and kept the bus clean. I’m a tent master now! I don’t know where I’ll put that on my resume, but I got the skills.”

Going above and beyond

Eugene and pharmacists on bus“I’d hang out at the clinic and help set up for the patients, get them comfortable and ask if they needed something to drink or eat. I helped the pharmacists keep order, stocking the bathroom, adjusting the temperature and making sure they had water when they needed it. A couple of times we had music playing, so I’d ask the pharmacists what type of music they like and we’d find a station and listen to some nice music while vaccinating. I wanted the experience for them to be as fun as it was for me. I didn’t want them to feel like, ‘OK, we have to go to work on a bus.’ I wanted it to be fun, so we laughed and joked and had a good time at every site.”
Battling the elements

Wildfire on mountain“I went to seven states I’d never been to before. I had a little bit of time between stops to meet up with a couple of friends and family I haven’t seen in a long time, while keeping to the schedule. Driving through New Mexico was fascinating. I drove through a dust storm. And I was in an earthquake in California – 4.2. The whole hotel started shaking, and I just grabbed my stuff and ran to the bus. I’ve never experienced an earthquake before. It wasn’t major, but it was enough where I had to call my mom! She was laughing because she could hear the uneasiness in my voice. And then I drove through wildfires. The whole side of a mountain was on fire that was heading down to the highway. That was scary – you can’t predict what fire’s going to do.”

Tricks of the trade

“Love’s gas stations are some of the cleanest. That’s where I prefer to stop, except it’s difficult having a bus at the truck stop because the pump cycle is on the opposite side. Most of the time I have to go in the back way to get fuel. As far as snacks go, I don’t really do them! I just drive and have music playing depending on my mood: a little reggae, techno, old R&B, jazz. The best part of being a bus driver is going to different cities and seeing different places and meeting different people. If I can put a smile on one person’s face and make them happy … knowing I impacted their life with just a smile is what I look forward to.”

On the road again

“Traveling our beautiful country has been an honor. Knowing that I’m not only helping myself, but also the world feels amazing. I loved when Julie Mitchell, a healthcare supervisor in Texas, asked us to spell out ‘Texas’ using our bodies, with me as the ‘X.’ She said the ‘X’ is what connects all the Walgreens team members from coast to coast. That really meant a lot to me, and I thought that was special because it's true. I was the one connecting us all. Not many people can say they’ve been able to do that. I got the chance to meet some great people who now call me a friend. They follow me on Facebook, and we talk to each other to this day.
“The best part was that even after I ended in Chicago, I didn't stop. I moved on to Colorado for a new role in mobile vaccinations. Now I'm an operations lead with certificates from the CDC and the state of Colorado. I oversee mobile vaccination unit leads and liaise between public health agencies and the state of Colorado to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19. I was blessed to have this opportunity, and am so grateful to have been able to help change the world.”

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