Standing by

Abington hosts first COVID-19 vaccination clinic; now it just needs more doses

The scene inside Abington’s first COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday was quiet. 

There were eight stations set up in the Middle/High School gym, but rarely was more than one in use. The small squad of Abington school nurses and fire department paramedics charged with administering the shots waited patiently for the next arm. In the bleachers sat a handful of people who had just received the vaccine, making sure that they didn’t have an adverse reaction. Nobody did. 

In all, it was an unremarkable scene, notable only for what was being administered – the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. And it was in sharp contrast to scenes from other states of people, including seniors, waiting in long lines for hours outside at mass inoculation sites.

“This is a dress rehearsal for when we scale up so if we have to do 1,000 people in a day, we know we can do it,” Abington Health Agent Marty Golightly said. “This will give us an idea of what we are doing well and what we are doing wrong.”

About 117 people were scheduled to receive vaccinations Wednesday, all part of the “Phase 1” cohort that includes first responders, health care workers, and those working and living in congregant living facilities.

Those interested had to pre-register through the Health Department, and were directed to enter through the high school gymnasium’s main entrance (Door 17). Recipients checked in at one multiple registration tables (Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer was among those staffing a table Wednesday), received their immunization card, which includes the recommended date of their second dose, and were screened for any symptoms before being brought into the gymnasium for their shot. 

The low volume was intentional, said Golightly, in order to ensure nobody was left waiting outside the day after a fresh snowfall, and to provide a buffer in case something didn’t work well.  

Plans for vaccine clinics in Abington have been ready since last spring. Golightly, who spent more than 20 years in health care while with the U.S. Navy, was part of the medical team charged with handling an outbreak of swine flu on a San Diego military base in 2009. He also observed how other countries handled epidemics during tours overseas. 

As soon as the coronavirus pandemic began last year, Golightly and the health department started working with the fire department, school department, and senior center to put a plan in place for the eventual vaccinations. 

The middle/high school is the town’s designated response site. Assistant Superintendent Felicia Moschella said the new building’s air quality has been tested twice this year and is meeting standards. Justin Silva, the Abington Fire Department’s EMS coordinator, who is also helping coordinate vaccination clinic operations, said 12 paramedics have received additional training on how to administer the shots. Nuttall said the department is arranging schedules to allow paramedics to staff clinics, while also keeping a full shift on duty. A town ambulance was parked outside ready to transport anyone having an adverse reaction. The Health Department arranged for a viral microbiologist to address clinic staffers so they can answer any questions. Senior Center Director Susanne Djusberg will help Abington seniors register for future clinics. 

Abington Fire Chief John Nuttall said Golighty’s military background aligned with the fire department’s incident command structure, allowing the departments to organize quickly using a shared lexicon. Everyone also left their agendas at the door, he said. 

“The cooperation with the different departments in Abington allowed this to happen.” Nuttall said. “Nobody’s holding out.”

Abington is so well prepared that officials from other communities stopped by Wednesday to see how the town organized it.

“We’re ready,” said Nuttall. “We just don’t have the vaccines.”

Ah yes, the actual vaccines, or “that sweet science juice” as Golightly likes to call it. 

The federal vaccine production and distribution program has received lukewarm reviews at best, as anticipated reserves of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines didn’t materialize. Massachusetts’ vaccination plan has also received tough grades, with reports suggesting the state is sitting on hundreds of thousands of doses, while enjoying the lowest innoculation rate in New England.

The Baker Administration said the federal government isn’t distributing vaccine doses fast enough; it also announced this week it was opening 103 additional vaccination sites across the state. 

Despite being ready, willing and able to vaccinate 1,000 people a day, Golightly said he has no idea when the town will receive it’s next allotment, or how Abington’s town clinics even fit into the state’s larger plans; for example, will priority be given to large vaccination sites such as Gillette Stadium, corporate chains such as Hanaford’s and CVS, or local towns operating clinics.

“That wouldn’t be a lie,” Golightly said when asked if he was frustrated by the lack of clarity from the state. 

Silva said he hopes the state plan is to flood the zone with options once vaccination efforts hit high gear. 

“If you start to decompress the system…you’re not going to have long lines,” he said. 

Golightly said he has days and dates picked out for clinics for Phase 2 recipients — which includes seniors, teachers, and food workers — but won’t formally schedule them until he has doses in hand.  

Seniors over the age of 75 can start scheduling appointments through a new state, web-based signup system as of Wednesday, but many reported having problems finding dates. 

Golightly said Abington’s seniors can call the senior center to schedule appointment times. 

There will be no cost to anyone receiving a vaccination. 

The town will be reimbursed for costs associated with running and staffing the clinics through CARES Act or FEMA funds. 

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