A Look At Arizona's Massive 24-Hour A Day COVID-19 Vaccination Site
President Biden took a virtual tour of a mass vaccination site in Glendale, Arizona, this week.
The president told the state health director that what the organizers were doing at the State Farm Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals, can serve as a model for the country. Earlier that day, Here & Now’s Peter O’Dowd received a tour from the Arizona State University’s David Thomas, the man in charge of making sure this site runs smoothly.
The state’s first mass vaccination pod administers a shot every 10 seconds, Thomas says.
On a Cardinals’ game day, thousands of tailgating fans flood the black ocean of asphalt to throw down hot dogs and beer. But now, instead, car after car rolls up 24 hours a day in hopes of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Thomas compares the process to entering a doctor’s office except people stay in their cars. Demand for vaccines is high but the efficiency of the site usually prevents long lines. The average wait time is 36 minutes from the time a car pulls up until it exits, he says.
The first stop is at a drive-thru registration tent where volunteers confirm that each patient has an appointment. Then, they drive on to the next tent where the magic happens, Thomas says.
After a year of dealing with COVID-19, people can get emotional upon pulling up to the tent, oftentimes for their first injection, he says. Vaccination serves as a sign of hope that the pandemic will end, with some people bursting out in tears, offering volunteers gifts or expressing gratitude.
“Every 10 seconds, somebody leaves this tent that has their vaccine,” he says. “And every 10 seconds, somebody else is now able to think about, ‘I can go visit my family. I might be able to travel. I might be able to go back into the office.’ ”
For Thomas, being a part of the push to vaccinate Arizonans is indescribable.
“There’s no words for how valuable these people are on this pavement right now, giving these vaccines to make our community whole again,” he says.
In one of the tents, William Howard sits in a cherry red Dodge pickup with his sleeve rolled up alongside his wife.
This is the 75-year old’s second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. With a needle in her hand, a nurse asks him about how receiving his first dose went.
“It’s a piece of cake,” he responds. He’s in a playful mood as the jab goes in.
Afterward, everyone has to wait at least 15 minutes in the parking lot to see if they’re allergic to the shot. Howard pulls over, turns off his truck and begins the wait.
“It was incredibly smooth,” he says. “I’m a general contractor. I wish I could get my subcontractors to be this smooth.”
Despite his age coupled with having Type 2 diabetes, he’s been working every day during the pandemic. Receiving the vaccine is rewarding and exciting, he says.
“We have a blessed life, literally,” he says. “And this just makes it a little bit better.”
More than 195,000 people like Howard have come through the site since it started operating last month. A second location across town recently opened, and organizers say it’s getting shots out at a similar rate — but there are real problems with the system.
Without a car, it’s nearly impossible to get to a football stadium on the outskirts of a sprawling mega-city like Phoenix. And like elsewhere across the country, the reservation system to make an appointment has been a nightmare.
On the eve of his 75th birthday, Tom Schifferer received his first injection. Getting an appointment on the website wasn’t easy, he says.
“It’s hard to get into the site,” he says. “I bet you we typed in 500 times to get, finally, one [appointment].”
His wife, Kathy Schifferer, sits alongside him. At age 74, she’s eligible to get a vaccine under the state’s rules, but she’s leaving without one because she didn’t have an appointment.
On some days, passengers without appointments can get a shot if they come along in the car. But on other days, they can’t.
The team at the site decides daily whether to accommodate other people in the car based on the number of available doses, says Dr. Cara Christ, who runs the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“We do try to accommodate if there are individuals in the car because we know if they’re a caretaker or a family member, they could put that vulnerable Arizonan at risk,” she says. “However, we do have limited doses.”
Another problem Christ faces in her position is equity. For the first time, the state released data on who is getting vaccinated this week. At last count, 48% of people vaccinated have been white, while 8% are Latino and just 1.4% are Black. For more than a third of the doses, there was no information recorded about race or ethnicity.
One volunteer who worked at a vaccination center said she was told by the organizers not to bother asking people about race or ethnicity when she entered their personal data into the system. However, Christ says the policy is to ask everyone these questions.
Christ says that the data showing a disproportionate number of white people receiving vaccines is due to the “very strict phases” of the state’s rollout.
“When you restrict by age or you restrict by profession, that’s going to skew your demographics,” she says.
Once Arizona moves into vaccinating the general public, the state will need to make efforts to reach communities of color otherwise the numbers will likely stay disproportionate.
Efforts are underway to ensure vulnerable, hardest-hit communities can access the vaccine and learn about why it’s safe and effective as the number of available doses increases, Christ says. The state is working to remove barriers such as transportation and working with local leaders and health care providers to reach people, she says.
Time is of the essence as the U.S. tries to get ahead of new coronavirus variants popping up worldwide. The core limitation that Arizona faces is the amount of vaccines it’s receiving, she says, but opportunities to get a shot will increase as the state receives more doses.
“There are allocations that go to pharmacies in high-risk areas as well as community health centers. They have them,” she says. “What we’ve identified is it’s just not as an efficient process as getting it out here [at] the stadium.”
So for now, the state will focus on mass vaccination sites like the one here at its football stadium.
At the final stop, volunteers ask patients one last set of questions before the cars can drive off. And with that, one more lucky person drives back into the world a little more protected from a virus that’s still killing thousands of Americans every day.
Peter O’Dowd produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris Ballman. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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