The vaccine clinic starts at 9 a.m. By 8:45 a.m. the lines stretch from the breezeway of Pacific Union School's main building in Arcata all the way through the parking lot, then the adjacent parking lot, to Janes Road. A young woman with blonde hair stands just inside the school's fence, her arms crossed against the early spring chill. The morning is overcast, the sky the color of cement. A slightly harried-looking volunteer wearing a white Rotarian shirt is directing traffic at the entrance, helping people with mobility issues pull around to the back of the building, where staff with the Area 1 Agency on Aging wait to assist. A small boy wearing a Mario costume clings to his mother's hand. The mood in the crowd is subdued, anticipatory, its masked participants not talking to one another but watching the action at the front of the line where, in the grade school's breezeway, staff with Mad River Community Hospital bustle back and forth. There is an atmosphere of excitement mixed with slight disbelief. For many, today is the day they've been thinking about for more than a year, the day they can take that first necessary step toward to pre-pandemic life.
Dennis Chase, 68, and his daughter Sara Gossi, 41, both of Fortuna, stand in the shorter "second shot" line, waiting for their chance to get to the front and receive their second and final jab of the Pfizer vaccine. They were alerted to the Mad River vaccination clinic by Gossi's inlaws. Chase is a rancher, Gossi a grocery store worker.
"The first time I was nervous," Gossi says. "I've heard you can get sick. A friend got sick afterward. But this time, no problem."
Next to them, Leena Dallasheh, an associate professorat Humboldt State University, says she got her first shot at a College of the Redwoods clinic.
"I'm really happy to be finally getting the shot," she says, saying there was some confusion about whether she and her colleagues were eligible but it was resolved.
At the head of the line, Jacqueline Martin and hospital staff are walking back and forth between the waiting crowd and a row of copy machines sitting on folding tables in the breezeway. Martin, quality team specialist and IT point of care trainer at Mad River, answers questions as she buzzes down the line, handing out clipboards with registration paperwork, taking IDs and insurance cards to copy.
"If I have an appointment, do I have to stand in this line?" asks one person.
"No," she replies. "If you have an appointment, your dose is reserved. You can come back later if you need to."
"I have my mom's insurance card, is that OK?" asks a college-aged young man.
No problem, Martin says.
"I don't have any insurance," says another young man.
"That's OK," Martin says.
By the end of the day, Martin and the other 44 hospital staff members will have helped administer 1,484 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, with Martin ensuring patient information makes it into the California Immunization Registry (CAIR) database.
"I'm so happy," says one young woman as she reaches the front of the line. She's wearing a shirt with the slogan, "Let's Stay Home," written on it.
Martin directs her down the breezeway, past the folding tables, past the empty classrooms, around to the back of the building to the school gym, where David Neal, Mad River's chief nursing officer is bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, greeting each person as they walk through the door. The Rolling Stones plays on a Bluetooth speaker beside him. Behind him are seven folding tables with colored pieces of paper taped to their edges. A staff member sits at each waiting to process paperwork.
"Hi there! Pink one," says Neal, glancing at the woman's paperwork. He points to the first table, where a pink piece of a paper has the words Pfizer 1 on it. The staff member at the table waves the woman to her, eyes smiling above her mask.
The grade school gym is full of people, some sitting at tables with their sleeves rolled up as nurses administer the vaccine, others on the bleachers and folding chairs waiting for the required 15 minutes to pass before they can leave. A nurse walks through the waiting crowd, checking in to make sure no one is having an adverse reaction. There is a low buzz of conversation from the nurses and their charges, but the voice that rings out above all in the large space is Neal's.
"Hello, hello," he says, ushering in a husband and wife duo. "You two can go in together. How long have you been married? I like to ask the husband first, to see if he knows."
The pair laughs and go to where a woman at the "Pink Two" table is waving.
"This is my 10th Saturday in a row," says Neal, whose responsibilities include coordinating with the county and St. Joseph Healthcare, as well as a local pharmacy, to allocate, distribute and store doses of the vaccine. He says the staff have been "just amazing."
"We've all been working six-day work weeks since January," says Neal. "I don't mind. It's the right thing to do for the community. It's what got us into the orange zone."
Of the 49,378 vaccine doses that had been administered in Humboldt County as the Journal went to press March 30, Mad River was responsible for giving 12,433 of them, roughly 25 percent, mostly through Saturday clinics. While the vaccines come to the hospital free of charge and insurance companies offer modest reimbursements for administering them, Martin said they don't cover the full costs, even with all management level employees essentially donating their Saturdays to the cause.
It's 9:15 and the blonde woman who was at the back of the line at the beginning of the morning has now reached the gym. Behind her are the child dressed as Mario and his mother.
"Mario's in the house," says Neal. "Hey, Mario!"
Mad River was the first healthcare facility in the county to administer the vaccine. Neal received a call from county health officer Ian Hoffman on Dec. 15 alerting him to the availability of some Pfizer vaccine.
"I said, 'Let's do it today,'" recalls Neal. "My staff looked at me like I had a forked tongue."
But by the end of the day, the hospital had administered 12 doses to hospital staff. They rolled on from there, using the county's database and their own network of clinics to sign up patients as they became eligible through the state's tiered system. Pacific Union School responded to an MOU for a mass vaccination site, offering its gym, which Neal calls "ideal." The gym, which sits next door to the hospital, has been equipped with a wifi booster to help staff enter patient information into the CAIR system as swiftly as possible. The most challenging aspect, Neil says, was figuring out reimbursement through various insurance providers. (The federal government pays for the vaccine but individual insurance policies cover the injections.)
Working shoulder to shoulder with Neal is Jordan Patterson, the hospital's human resources and clinic manager. Patterson has worked at Mad River since she was 15 and says she "wouldn't miss a Saturday even if [she] had to," but is concerned about a looming deadline: On April 1, Blue Shield will officially take charge of the state's vaccination process in a third and final wave of counties, including Humboldt. The insurance company will require real-time entry of patient information into the CAIR system, which Patterson and others are concerned will slow the process significantly, especially in rural areas with technology gaps and laggy wifi.
"Everyone will have to have a computer," says Patterson, referring to the nurses and staff administering the doses. "I think it will bring our allocation down to a third."
Neal and Patterson take a beat to coo over a chihuahua tucked into a woman's front pack carrier. Neal waves her to "Pink 3." It's 10:30 and the line through the school parking lot has overflowed onto the sidewalk, curling back on itself against the fence of the clinic driveway next door. An elderly man sits patiently in his car reading a book as he waits for a volunteer to come escort him up the steps. Neal, Patterson and the rest of the staff will be here until 3 p.m. Neal expects he will be hoarse by the end of the day.
"I'm the orchestra leader," he says, clearly beaming beneath his mask. Another couple comes through the door and Neal asks how long they've been married. The man says 21 years. His wife contradicts him, saying no, 22 years. Neal laughs at the mischief he's caused.
Just outside the door, the hospital's CEO, Doug Shaw, stands next to yet another folding table, taking clipboards as patients pass through and wiping them down with disinfectant.
"This is a record," Shaw says of the day's turnout. Prior to using the school gym, the hospital was doing daily clinics. It worked at streamlining the process to be as efficient as possible, writing special software to assist staff. "We pride ourselves for doing it differently. Once we got it down, we didn't stop."
As Shaw speaks, a man sitting backward on a rolling walker pushes himself the final few feet to the door. Neal greets him, assists him in getting turned around and to a waiting staff member.
"We have a passion for this," says Shaw. "We're going to open up this county."
Linda Stansberry (she/her) is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Eureka. You can find her work at www.lindastansberry.com.