Above: As Holy Cross’s emergency manager, David Elliot supervises and implements the hospital’s standards and protocols for emergency preparedness. Photograph by Gabriella Marks.
DAVID ELLIOT HAD AN IDEA that he knew could help the people around him. When the pandemic hit, Taos County needed a swift, unconventional solution to coordinate a relief effort for the town’s rural residents. But first the Holy Cross Medical Center’s emergency manager needed to get everyone else on board.
“David pulled in several leaders from the community,” says Sonya Struck, a community officer for the LOR Foundation in Taos County. Elliot suggested forming a COAD—short for “community organization active in disaster”—to weather the COVID-19 storm. He believed that a local disaster-preparedness, response, and recovery organization could help the mountain town of 6,000 and the surrounding area when they were hungry, needed shelter to quarantine, and, eventually, when they needed the vaccine.
“The magic moment was when a bunch of people all said yes to coming together,” says Elliot. Leaders in healthcare, education, agriculture, nonprofits, and businesses big and small met to come up with solutions, such as expanding Meals on Wheels for low-income seniors and helping local businesses apply for grants.
Elliot might have been the perfect person to pull it all together. As Holy Cross’s emergency manager, he supervises and implements the hospital’s standards and protocols for emergency preparedness. He also serves as the New Mexico Region 1 Healthcare Coalition’s regional preparedness coordinator, which allowed him to quickly organize and send thousand of pounds of masks, food, and other supplies gathered by the Enchanted Circle COAD throughout northern New Mexico. “It doesn’t feel like a job,” says Elliot. “This has always been part of my story.”
Elliot grew up in Minnesota, where his mother was a nurse and raised five kids even after she became disabled in an accident. “My family didn’t have very much,” he says. “We were helped, frankly, by our community. And that made all the difference.”
Elliot came to the state as a New Mexico State University graduate student but decided the political science degree he was working on was too “ideas-based.” He got involved in community farming with friends in Las Cruces before eventually moving to Taos and becoming a volunteer firefighter. Finding his place in disaster relief and emergency response finally answered the question he had been asking: “How do we build something positive in the face of crisis?”
When vaccines became available last December, Elliot and the Enchanted Circle COAD got to work. The hospital had previously performed emergency preparedness exercises for flu shots, so “we already knew how to do very fast, efficient vaccinations,” Elliot says. However, Holy Cross was dealing with an influx of COVID-19 patients and couldn’t spare many nurses for community vaccination sites. COAD helped coordinate more than 300 volunteers to administer vaccines throughout Taos County.
Already taxed nurses, doctors, other medical professionals, and Taos Search and Rescue volunteers stepped up, too, putting in thousands of combined hours. “We vaccinated 26,000 or 27,000 people in the first iteration of this effort,” Elliot says. For the first months of 2021, that represented a significant portion of all Taos County vaccinations.
Even beyond the pandemic, the organization Elliot helped to create continues in its mission. “This is somebody’s worst day,” he says. “How do we be human with each other on those bad days? How can we do something positive in these situations of tragedy?”