A Look Back: Vaccinating a Community Hit Hard by COVID-19

By Luci Dehaan

In a community where COVID-19 virus positivity rates were among the highest in the country, many welcomed the vaccine with open arms.

But distribution of the vaccines didn’t happen by chance.

Here’s a look back at what SBH Health System did to put shots into arms of both staff and the community this past winter and spring. SBH received its first supply of the Pfizer vaccine when it became available in December 2020 and was prioritized for healthcare workers. A nurse supervisor, Clover Mclennon, received the first shot. As the weeks went by and eligibility opened up to people by age, to essential workers and other high priority groups, SBH mobilized and responded as vaccines were delivered.

Staff from throughout the hospital formed a seamless structure that would quickly convene when a supply of vaccines were due to arrive at SBH. Together, they coordinated the many facets of vaccine administration including, but not limited to, community outreach and education, communications, scheduling, confirmation, managing patient flow, pulling data, and submitting reports.

Between December 2020 and April 2021, before vaccine access expanded widely, SBH vaccinated more than 10,000 staff and community members.

Alvin Lin, Vice President, Ambulatory Care, began his mornings at 7 a.m. at the SBH COVID-19 vaccine registration kiosk in the new SBH Health and Wellness Center, checking the vaccination roster for the day. On this day, among the row of laptops at the kiosk, sat a handmade “Thank You” card made by a grateful patient.

By 7:40 a.m., a steady stream of peoplebegan walking through the doors of the facility, where vaccines were administered, to check in for appointments that started at 8 a.m.

Getting to that point, however, started much earlier in the morning.

SBH’s COVID-19 vaccination effort was a 24-hour operation staffed by a team of pharmacists, nurses, screening coordinators, registrars, callers, IT and administrative staff, some of whom began at midnight preparing the schedule for the day. By 6 a.m., another team came in to finalize the list.

Nurses and the management team arrived at 7 a.m. to re-check the schedule and confirm staffing and logistics. Pharmacists started preparing the 150 – 300 Pfizer vaccine doses that were administered daily.

The team huddled every morning at 7:30 a.m. to review where they were, discuss any issues that may have arisen the day before, and what, if any, processes they could improve.

“We continually assessed our operations and looked for where we could make improvements,” says Lin. “It was all about making sure people had a quick, smooth, and positive experience.”

For those welcoming the vaccine, their appreciation was evident by their smiles, their stories, tears of relief, and selfies taken throughout the day. Many returned bringing snacks, coffee, food baskets, and thank you cards to SBH staff as a gesture of appreciation.

Vaccine recipients included lifelong Bronx residents like Mike Boylan, who came to SBH after vaccine eligibility opened up to those ages 65 and older. “It was an excellent experience. Everyone was so nice and friendly and they had everything down to a science.”

The sentiment was shared by community-based organizations seeking vaccinations for their frontline employees and high-risk community members. SBH worked with more than a dozen organizations in its network that represents home care, behavioral health, and senior center employees and clients to make sure they had vaccination appointments.

As in many underserved communities, there was vaccine hesitancy. Members of the vaccination team routinely visited area grocery stores, restaurants, and businesses to provide information and answer questions. They addressed concerns and answered such questions as: should people get vaccinated if they have had the virus, if they are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, if they have allergies, or have certain health conditions? One staffer, Betty Iannaccio, an administrative assistant in the SBH Department of Medicine and a familiar figure on nearby Arthur Avenue, poked her head in at stores throughout the area known as Little Italy to remind storeowners and shoppers of the importance of getting vaccinated.

The effort was not without its challenges. When the FDA approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in December 2020, demand outweighed the supply on hand. People called SBH continually and were willing to drive hours to get a vaccine for themselves or family members. As eligibility widened, there was a deluge of requests.

As more vaccine sites opened up in the spring, people booked appointments at multiple sites to secure the most convenient place or time. As a result, there were last-minute cancellations and no-shows often resulting in extra vaccine doses on hand by the last appointment.

SBH was committed to ensuring that no dose goes to waste. In addition to an online waiting list, the vaccination team engaged a network of community members and organizations that matched people who could come on short notice to fill cancellations.

Mike Boylan joined those ranks and brought more than 30 people to be vaccinated when there were extra vaccines.

Rabbi Shoshana Leis of the Hebrew Congregation of Somers also took this mission to heart. “I learned about St. Barnabas’s work to make sure no vaccine shot gets wasted and felt like this was an important way to help our country’s vaccination effort,” she says. She connected with three temples and recruited 223 people who were able to fill open spots on just two hours’ notice.

According to Lin, the success of the effort was fueled by the community’s positive feedback, the support of all those who want to help in the effort, and the dedicated staff of SBH.

”The SBH community wholeheartedly pitched in. We had nurses, doctors, and many other staff and their family members volunteering to fill in the gaps on mornings, weekends, and their days off,” he says. “Patients, neighborhood residents, stores, and local organizations were always asking ‘what can I do to help?’ It was the most important thing we could do for our community and they wanted to be a part of it.”