Working at a Mass Vaccination Site

As an LA County Department of Public Health temporary staffer, I worked about ten shifts at the vaccination mega-POD (Point of Distribution) at Cal State Northridge. Like many institutions, the university had closed because of the pandemic; we set up operations at a sprawling outdoor parking lot. This was one of five drive through sites in LA County that the public health department constructed in record time to get vaccines in the arms of front-line workers, the elderly, and most vulnerable. There were 10 lanes, each lane consisting of six or seven nurses, and five public health staff directing traffic and helping the nurses with registrations. There were additional staff and volunteers who monitored cars of patients waiting after their shot, as well as a contingent of LA Fire Department and lifeguards helping pick up trash, power generators, and help setting up and breaking down the lanes and assisting with morning staff registration.

On the first shift I worked, January 20th, the same day as Biden’s inauguration, the operation was just getting set up. It was cool and windy, and blank vaccine cards would take off in the wind when set down on a plastic folding table. I had just received my first vaccine shot the day before, in El Serrano east of downtown Los Angeles. I got my shot at a park manned by LA Fire Department and USC medical school volunteers. At CSU Northridge, a student volunteer would check driver’s licenses, and write patients’ names, date of their first dose, and reminder for a follow up second appointment on the back of a vaccine card. Two resident physicians from UCLA stood at the ready, donning blue disposable latex gloves and disposable yellow gowns, asking healthcare workers and elderly patients to roll down the window and roll up their sleeves. They would then carefully inject drivers and passengers with a syringe in the shoulder before placing band aide over the site. All day cars would drive by in lanes separated by orange cones that divided the university blacktop. One patient had an ID from Ecuador. Could we still give them a shot? After some discussion, and a conversation with an Asian-American supervisor who arrived in a backwards LA Dodgers cap and baggy cargo pants, policy was clarified. We would accept foreign Identification, including passports, if patients showed that they were over 65 years old.

At first it was the public health department and FEMA that ran mass vaccination sites. We were ordered to sign up for at least four shifts each. County employees were augmented by traveler nurses and temp healthcare staff. These nurses were almost exclusively black women from the south—from small towns in Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas. A half dozen ran registrations and vaccine administration at each lane. There were also a dozen nurses who worked in a tent, later an airconditioned trailer, drawing vaccines into syringes from vials that had been kept super cool in cold freezers kept on premises in another tent powered by generators. The public health staff were mostly Latino and white, with a fair mix of Armenians and eastern European immigrants.

The patients were healthcare workers and elderly residents, mostly of the San Fernando Valley, and they were almost exclusively white. Quite a few drove Teslas, BMWs, Audis, and other expensive cars. We would pass out brochures, stickers, and motion for cars to turnoff their engines when idling, and to move forward when another car would move to the 15-minute waiting zone where patients would wait in-case they had an allergic reaction to the vaccine.  Nurses would grab patients IDs and vaccine cards we were administering only second doses that day. The nurses wore masks and face shields, as did I. I had recently been vaccinated—the vaccine’s effectiveness had yet to kick in, and by talking to waiting carloads, I was putting myself at risk of contracting COVID. We would bring the drivers licenses to a registration intermodal trailer that had been repurposed to store supplies and people- three nurses sat at tables checking in patients on the state’s new vaccine registry system MyTurn. The entire site had the capacity to distribute four thousand vaccines a day-but we only made appointments for approximately 2000 patients. There was not enough vaccine to go around. First, healthcare workers, then the elderly, then essential workers were eligible to set up appointments to get vaccinated. Over time other tiers of essential workers and those with disabilities could make appointments.

One driver, a woman in her sixties, stopped her car and started crying uncontrollably. Her mom, she explained, had recently died of COVID-19. And here we were, less than a month later, she was getting the vaccine that might have saved her mother’s life.

I worked about a shift a week, skipping my duties processing COVID-19 test result spreadsheets to work vaccinating the public. By late-February and early March, things had changed. No longer were there student helpers and County workers who would take off their normal duties to work a shift in order to get vaccinated at the end of the day. The entire operation was now staffed by temporary help agencies. One agency was Favorite Healthcare Staffing. People would come in for 12-week assignments, but they had to get to their hotels a week early to settle in from out of town. Nurses and other staff would spend the late winter and early spring in sunny California rather than home in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Georgia. They operated every day, in the rain and in the heat.

One day I passed out vaccine information to idling cars. Another day I directed traffic so none of the healthcare staff would get hit accidentally. A third day I transported syringes from a trailer where nurses would draw the vaccine from vials into the syringes that we would transport in small metal bins to the retrofitted intermodal containers that served as a storage and office space for each lane’s vaccine station. The vaccine had to stay cold, so we would only get three to five syringes at a time—we were constantly walking back and forth across the massive parking lot, avoiding cars and rows of orange traffic cones. One vaccine runner had gotten COVID twice, his entire family contracted the virus. He had been off work for a month in the spring of 2020, and then later that fall got COVID again. It disabled him for another six-week stretch. It felt good to distribute vaccines, he said. We were part of the solution.

Later in the month, essential workers replaced the healthcare workers and elderly who had lined up for vaccines before. Rusted Hondas coughing exhaust from their mufflers replaced the more expensive luxury cars. These janitors, housecleaners, cashiers, and delivery drivers worked throughout the pandemic in groceries, warehouses, and on the street, keeping those fortunate enough to work from home safe and well fed. Our Mega-POD was only open from 9 am to 4 pm, a difficult time window for essential workers. But workers took the day off, or showed up before their evening shifts, to get vaccinated and protect themselves from COVID. As a new, more contagious COVID variant spreads across the country, the non-vaccinated are especially at risk of contracting COVID, being hospitalized, and dying of the disease. The 2nd dose of the vaccine gave me an aching arm and slight fever after two days; I took one ibuprofen and all symptoms disappeared. With anti-mask and anti-vaxxers continuing the death-cult like spread of fear and suspicion, it is more important than ever to heed the healthcare workers and public health experts’ advice to get vaccinated to stop the spread of the disease.

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