As many of us wait to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, you may be wondering what the experience will be like. WAMC’s Jackie Orchard recently toured the Albany Times Union Center mass vaccination clinic.
The Albany Times Union Center, normally a venue for roaring sports fans or concert-goers, is transformed into a real-life choose your own adventure book. Except, instead of exploring caves or solving mysteries, you’re answering screening questions. Under the age of 60 and able bodied? Have an appointment? No symptoms? Turn right and take a ride up the escalator. Over the age of 60 or in a wheelchair? Straight ahead, on the fast track.
Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen walks me through the opening sequence, where staff ensure you’ve signed up for the clinic and that you meet eligibility. People were ushered away so quickly a line didn’t form.
“You might be asked to show a license for your age,” Whalen said. “Or if you’re an essential worker, you have to kind of show her a work ID, and then you come through. So once you check into that area, you come through here to where we're currently standing, which is the main part of the auditorium.”
Whalen shows me the arena floor. In this hulking venue, the superstars aren’t in jerseys or costumes – they’re in fluorescent yellow vests layered with masks and face shields, scurrying trays of syringes and raising orange flags to indicate they’re ready for another patient.
But the massive space doesn’t just look cool. Whalen says it’s needed so that they can move large numbers of people through while maintaining social distance.
“As you see, we have people working solely on flow,” Whalen said. “And after every single POD [point of distribution], we debrief and say, ‘How can we improve the next time? How can we make it better? How can we make it a smoother experience for people that are coming through?’”
About 60 stations with colored flags and “vaccine assistants” dot the floor.
“And their job is to take the information and ask some medical questions for screening for everybody that comes in for the vaccine,” Whalen said.
For example, they might ask about the medications that you take or any health conditions you might have.
“And if there are any concerns, we have medical evaluators who are usually MDs or pharmacists here to come and speak to those that are being vaccinated, answer any questions that they might have, and then we go forward with vaccine,” Whalen said.
Every table has a nurse or doctor, as well, certified to give the vaccine. Like DarciJean Sprague, a 64-year-old retired critical care nurse who volunteers at the clinic at least once a week. She moves between three tables all day, telling patients what to expect and verifying they can come back for dose number two.
“I am so happy to be part of something to get us all back together,” Sprague said. “I retired last year and so this gives me a purpose.”
The volunteers, many of whom are retired doctors and nurses, work 8-hour shifts, mostly on their feet all day. But they keep smiling.
“Now you’re back out there in the field,” I said.
“I am,” Sprague said, “And loving every minute of it! They have asked me to come back and do vaccinating and I’m going to do that part-time.”
The far end of the arena houses physically distanced rows of folding chairs, where patients sit to ensure there are no serious side-effects of the vaccine.
“This is just in case anyone who might manifest any signs or symptoms of an allergic reaction,” Whalen said. “Or, sometimes people get a little woozy when they're taking a vaccine. And it gives us an opportunity to keep an eye on them. Anybody that has a history of allergy, particularly those with histories of anaphylaxis to any previous vaccines or other things, we ask them to wait about a half an hour here.”
Lloyd Ballou volunteered to speak about his experience.
“It was very well organized,” Ballou said. “Went upstairs, they check your temperature, you come back down, they check your ID, you come in you get your shot and that’s pretty much it.”
But, what we all want to know… Did it hurt?
“No, not at all,” Ballou said. “I didn’t even feel it.”
Paula Young also decided to spend her 15-minute recovery talking with me.
“I’m very impressed because it’s very calm, the people that are working here are very well marked as to what they do, everyone is very nice, there’s a lot of volunteers here, it’s great,” Young said.
Whalen says in her entire 20-year career in public health, vaccinating the population against COVID-19 has been her happiest moment.
“Because you really do see a tremendous amount of relief that people have, when they get that shot in their arm,” Whalen said.
County health departments train for this scenario. Whalen says the county’s clinics are going exactly as they planned.
“What's been a little bit different is how the vaccine has been allocated and rolled out,” Whalen said. “I think we had planned originally that it would be the local health departments that would take that lead role. And now it's the regional hubs, but that collaboration is working well. And we know that there are many partners now that are involved in vaccination, it was never just going to be the local health department. So this is a good thing.”
Whalen and her frontline staff were vaccinated. She got the Moderna shot, which has become known as “the one that makes you sick on the second dose.” Whalen says the vaccine is activating your immune system, which may not be fun but is actually a good sign.
“We do find that, you know, usually with the first dose, it's kind of a priming response,” Whalen said. “So people don't necessarily get any kind of side effects from that. But sometimes the second dose, when your body is primed, you start to make antibodies and your body does develop a little bit of an inflammatory response. So sometimes people do have little low-grade fever or may be laid up for a day. But this is short-lived. This is your body making what it needs to fight COVID. And it's controlled. And we have not had anyone hospitalized and certainly, you know, haven't had any of the serious effects from this that we see with COVID.”
As vaccine eligibility expands, Dr. Whalen says sites are ready to move more people through. And she encourages everyone eligible to get the shot. If not out of concern for your own safety – for an elderly family member who might not fare so well with the disease.
And, most importantly: You get a sticker.
“Yep! We do have stickers,” Whalen said. “Our first couple of clinics we had quite a few people saying, ‘where are our stickers,’ and we didn’t have them so we got them! People like to get their stickers when they get vaccinated no matter what age they are!”