Sunday, January 24, 2021, 6:15 a.m.
Day 1 begins in darkness. I park and join a line of people in scrubs walking into the tailgate lot at Petco Park. Waiting to sign in, the mood is light despite the early hour. People are chatting, waving to friends and coworkers — cold but excited.
New volunteers get a brief orientation. Roles at the superstation include vaccinator, scribe, charge nurse, runner, observer, check-in/registration, and support personnel (IT, traffic control, etc). Vaccinators have to be licensed medical professionals, and scribes and check-in need access to the electronic record system, but anyone can sign up as a runner or observer. Doctors and medics are also on standby for emergencies. Pretty much everyone is a volunteer, except maybe the traffic crew.
As a scribe, I’m paired with a vaccinator, nurse R. This is her 6th shift in two weeks, including yesterday, when she got soaked in a rare San Diego rainstorm. “I’m just happy to be working with patients again,” she says. “Ever since I lost my nursing job at the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been missing this feeling.”
Our tents (A1 and A2) have 2 vaccinator-scribe teams. We split 5 cars, some with multiple people inside to vaccinate. The vaccination itself is quick: sanitize, inject, gauze, band-aid. Afterward, everyone is observed in their car for at least 15 minutes, longer if they have a history of severe allergic or vaccine-related reactions. Our line of tents (A1, A3, A5) does 15 cars at the same time, with more teams down at A3 and A5. While those cars wait for the 15-minute observation, the vaccinator-scribe teams roll over to the other side (A2, A4, A6). By the time we’re done vaccinating A2, the cars from A1 have left and been replaced with new ones again.
In the scarce minutes that we spend with each patient, many are quick to thank us for volunteering. I expected questions about the vaccine, side effects, etc. but the most common question by far is how to sign up for the second dose.
The volunteers feel optimistic about their work as well. Most, like nurse R, have done multiple shifts before. The superstation opened on Monday, January 11th. Phase 1A workers are currently eligible for vaccination in our county; phases are determined by federal, state, and local guidelines. Individuals age 65 and older were made eligible on January 23rd, but we still have more healthcare workers and individuals 75+ to vaccinate.
After finishing each line of cars, we barely have time to fill out the vaccine cards and load new syringes before more cars arrive. The morning quickly turns into the afternoon. I end up staying a couple of hours after the assigned shift to help keep things moving, with the sun shining down cheerfully on our efforts.
Wednesday, Jan 28, 2021, 12:30 p.m.
I volunteer as a scribe again, paired up with nurse K. She works on the floor below the orthopedics unit. The other vaccinator in our tent is a nurse clinic supervisor in orthopedics, and we joke about how she gave me my flu shot a few months ago. It’s fun seeing these familiar faces in a new context, working side by side again towards a common goal.
Part of what makes this experience so meaningful for me is that I’m currently doing a year-long research fellowship. Since July, I’ve been sitting on the sidelines while other healthcare workers faced COVID-19 head-on. Knowing that I have spent my life training to help others, yet being helpless to do so.
Volunteering in the vaccination effort gives me back so many things I didn’t realize I was missing: hope, purpose, community, and most importantly, a lifeline to extend to others.
Now, standing in the tent, I get emotional thinking about each car that pulls up. Inside, a miniature world: middle-aged children bringing their elderly parents to get vaccinated, terrified frontline providers searching for safety at work, a husband tenderly instructing his wife with dementia to keep her arm relaxed. Only once did I overhear someone joking, “Now you’ve been microchipped by Bill Gates!” They were driving a Tesla.
The line of cars grows sparse as the afternoon wears on. Everyone is a bit perplexed because the superstation was shut down for two days due to high winds. This is the first day it’s reopened. One woman said she had waited for hours in the morning, but when she returned in the afternoon to bring her parents, there was no delay at all.
Eventually, the trickle of cars turns into intermittent drips. We shiver in the dark, trying to stay warm. A handful of people approach the lot as it gets close to 7 p.m. Each one hopes to get a dose leftover from the appointments. I’m not sure if they meet the eligibility criteria or not, but I fear they’ll end up disappointed. Each tent started receiving single doses rather than vials hours ago, around 4:45 p.m., in an effort to not waste any vaccine.
This highlights some of the real human challenges of the vaccine rollout. Aside from problems in vaccine production, distribution, and storage, individuals who are finally eligible have been frustrated by confusion on how to sign up, difficulty scheduling an appointment, and hours of waiting in traffic to receive their dose. The mass vaccination effort is only just beginning, and for many, it cannot come fast enough.
And yet, the mood here is overwhelmingly positive. This is the culmination of months of hope and sacrifice.
My favorite part is waving to the passengers as the cars leave. We’re at the front tent, so they all drive past to exit. Most people have shed their masks while waiting. After almost a year of only seeing strangers with their faces covered, I get to see hundreds of smiling faces waving back.