Behind the Scenes at a Covid-19 Vaccination Center
How Bainbridge Island’s Medical Reserve Corp is making sure not a single dose goes to waste
The early morning drizzle stopped just as Loren Bast parked his car outside the senior community center on Bainbridge Island in Washington state on a Friday in late January. He strode purposefully inside and put on a reflective blue vest over his maroon jacket.
Bast, the executive director of Bainbridge Prepares — a mutual aid organization dedicated to building community resilience — has been… busy, to say the least. Since the end of December, he’s been leading the vaccine rollout in Bainbridge and the surrounding Kitsap County with the island’s volunteer-run Medical Reserve Corps.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Medical Reserve Corps (MRCs) sprouted up all over the country to help communities respond in times of crisis. MRCs comprises volunteers who have a medical background or are trained in emergency preparedness, such as paramedics or EMTs. In Western Washington, MRCs were primarily concerned about natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires. Pandemics weren’t top of mind (though the MRC on Bainbridge certainly considered them).
Bainbridge is a quick ferry ride to Seattle and connected by land to the rest of Kitsap County — two places with many hospital systems. In late 2019 two family doctors, Andrea Chymiy, MD, and David Cowan, MD, decided to take advantage of the outsized medical talent on the island and gathered up volunteers to create an MRC. “We wanted to find out who lived here,” says Chymiy; the inception wasn’t necessarily inspired by a particular event or need. However, this organizing proved useful when the pandemic hit. “We had a large group at our fingertips, ready to be called,” says Chymiy. Volunteers helped out at test sites around the island and county, and also did on-site testing at nursing homes where there were outbreaks.
Today the MRC is focused on administering vaccines to members of the community. To date, they’ve vaccinated more than 2,000 people who are in the priority groups, according to Chymiy. She organizes the schedule for the clinic and opens up the volunteer spots about five days in advance. “They fill up in an hour,” she says. “People are really, really excited to help.”
At the start of the day, Volunteers begin trickling into the main room at the senior center. They doff their jackets, don the reflective vests, and start setting up tables and chairs for vaccine stations.
At a quarter to nine, Bast pulls the team of volunteers together for a huddle. The volunteers introduce themselves — many are first-timers — and Bast gives them the lay of the land. Today, they are looking to administer 150 doses. “The challenge for today: The [appointments] bunch up in the afternoon,” Bast says. He emphasizes to the volunteers administering the vaccines that consistent messaging is key: Vaccine recipients need to be told that they must sign up in about four weeks to receive their second dose and that they should be told to not receive any other vaccinations in the interim.
Mark Tan, a Filipino immigrant living on Bainbridge, walks in and introduces himself briefly to the group. Tan owns the local pharmacy. A few days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine, Tan put in a request for doses for the MRC’s vaccination efforts. On December 21, he was approved to get 300 doses within the next day or two. “We were just excited to be one of the first few in Washington that got approved.” He’s requested more over the last few weeks. “I asked for 500 this week, and got 100,” he said.
At 9:20, the first patient walks in the door. After filling out some paperwork she gets her pick of a vaccinator. Jim Gleckler, an MRC volunteer with Coke-bottle glasses brings her over to his station. Gleckler, a registered nurse, asks her the standard questions: which arm she’d like the vaccine in and whether or not she has any allergies or is taking active medications. She pulls up the sleeve on her left arm; Gleckler administers the shot, and the patient goes on her way.
Around 10:00 a.m., a line begins to form outside the senior center. 64-year-old Susan Kristensen arrives with her 100-year-old mother, Elva, to receive their first doses. Since the vaccine became available, Susan tried tirelessly to get her mom booked for a dose. “I went online. I tried everywhere. I tried in the middle of the night, refreshing web pages constantly,” Susan said. Finally, they were able to book an appointment through the MRC. “It’s such a relief,” she told me, as she and Elva sat in the garden after their shot.
Although the volunteers giving vaccines must have an active medical license, there are also ways for those without a license — but trained in emergency response — to help out. David Harm, a former engineer for Shell, signed up to help with the check-in process. “There’s a greater humanity out there that I want to connect with and be a part of, especially in these times where humanity is really struggling,” he says.
MRC volunteer Kathy Maher ends up vaccinating a friend of hers who she hasn’t seen in a while. The two had helped take care of each other’s children when they were both working at hospitals in Seattle, many years ago.
Volunteers bring in bag sandwiches for lunch. Around 12:30, new folks start coming in for the afternoon shift. Linda Semlitz rotates in for the afternoon. As a retired child psychiatrist who worked in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic and in Japan during the 2011 tsunami, she’s incredibly impressed by how the MRC in Bainbridge has stepped up in administering the vaccine. “There’s a level of volunteerism here that’s extraordinary,” she says.
“There’s a greater humanity out there that I want to connect with and be a part of, especially in these times where humanity is really struggling.”
The volunteers continue counting doses in the afternoon. Around 2 p.m., Bast helps take stock of how many doses are still available and matches them up with the number of appointments remaining during the day. Reeve Fritchman, a management consultant, helped build a simple dashboard on an iPad so volunteers can track the number of doses that have been given, and the number of doses that remain for the day.
Most people who book an appointment show up, but some may forget. If there are more doses available than appointments, he will start calling people on the waitlist. The MRC’s eligibility team reached out in advance to all public and private schools and childcare centers, grocery stores, hardware stores, and other essential retail locations for their staff who qualify for the current phases to build the waitlist. If there are more appointments than doses, Bast will have to cancel and reschedule some appointments. It varies which way the pendulum will swing: whether there are more no-shows, or if the clinic is overbooked.
Throughout the afternoon, hopeful individuals show up at the senior center, inquiring if there might be extra doses available. Tyler Heinemann, an MRC volunteer tasked with greeting visitors, often has the hard job of turning them away.
Around 4 p.m., as members of the local fire department swing by to help dispose of the biohazard containers, Amy Sing, the assistant site manager, is walking around the vaccination tables and counting doses. She’s confused, as she wasn’t anticipating there to be more doses than appointments.
This is Sing’s third time volunteering at the clinic, and she was excited to help even though she doesn’t live on Bainbridge Island, but in Seattle. She wanted to volunteer during the pandemic, but wasn’t keen on helping out with test sites because she would pass on that risk to her newborn grandson and 90-year old mother. “Giving vaccinations is probably the lowest risk activity,” she says, to help with public health efforts around Covid. On her volunteer days, she wakes up at 5 a.m. to make it on time for the 7:55 ferry to Bainbridge.
At 4:20, Bast makes the executive decision to begin making calls from the waitlist.
Tom Reck, a resident of Bainbridge in his seventies who has cancer, was exuberant when his phone unexpectedly rang that afternoon. Reck had tried to get a vaccine appointment since the second they were available, but struggled to find any availability. After Reck received Bast’s call, he and his wife immediately jumped in the car to make it in time — the clinic usually closes at five. “My wife kept telling me to slow down,” he said. “I was just worried I wouldn’t get here quickly enough.”
Reck, post-shot, now sits outside as he self-times for 15 minutes to monitor for any reactions. He was impressed by the volunteer staff, and the folks giving shots. “Things were amazingly efficient and congenial. It’s marvelous they’re giving their time and as far as an island volunteer organization, I couldn’t speak more highly of them,” he says.
At 4:50, the volunteers still have seven doses left to give and only 10 minutes until the clinic needs to close. Some volunteers are winding down, and folding up the tables, and stacking the chairs, as the last few individuals rush in to get their shots.
By the end of the clinic, all 150 doses are accounted for. “That’s the most exciting part of every vaccine clinic,” Chymiy says.
“We’ve never wasted a dose,” Bast says.
Despite the success of the vaccine clinic, the challenges vary week by week. Adapting to the changing guidelines of whom to vaccinate is particularly hard, says Bast. So are sudden shifts in demand: When Governor Jay Inslee opened up vaccinations to those 65 and older, it flooded the clinic’s online sign-up system.
There’s also high interest in joining the MRC, which isn’t a bad thing, but because Bast, Chymiy, and the others are so busy with the vaccine clinic, they have no time to process new volunteer applications. They currently have about 400 volunteers to help with the clinic.
The two of them have also been approached by numerous other entities to help administer vaccines. That’s what’s exciting to Bast about Bainbridge’s efforts. “We’ve become the model for how other towns and counties can basically establish their own medical reserve corps,” he says. In Bainbridge, he attributes the success to the community. “We just have the right people, right minds, all thinking along the same lines and all being really collaborative with each other.”