FLORENCE — More than 1,200 people received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine this past week at the Florence Community Center after a U.S. government team arrived to help expedite the shots.
Pinal County staff were notified a team of federal vaccinators was headed this way, including physicians, nurses, paramedics and a pharmacist as part of the federal disaster medical service. Pinal County had been asking for a large vaccination site for some time now, Dr. Tascha Spears, Pinal County Public Health director, said.
“We were so grateful to hear we had 10 vaccinators and their commander here.”
Unfortunately, they didn’t bring any extra vaccine. “So that has become our dilemma and our challenge as always, and they clearly recognize that and are also taking that information back with them to FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration),” Spears said.
Pinal County staff assembled the POD, or “point of dispensing,” site in less than 48 hours, “and that is by virtue of the partnerships” between Pinal County Emergency Management, local law enforcement, firefighters and the civilian community emergency response teams (CERTs) from the city of Maricopa and the town of Florence, Spears said. “So it was really the community that pulled together. … (Federal team members) were so impressed that our partnerships were so strong that we could do this.”
More than 600 people were vaccinated in each of the first two full days the clinic was open, and Spears said they planned to give out the county’s last available vaccines on Friday, Feb. 12.
When the county receives its next shipment of vaccine, the federal team will be gone. “We have asked for another team to replace them, and we have asked for support services,” Spears said. She added she would like to continue to use the Florence Community Center as a vaccination site.
“We are so grateful to the town of Florence and the leadership for assisting immediately, on the weekend, allowing us to set this up and helping us every step of the way,” Spears said. The community center has also hosted COVID-19 tests for some time, and the clinic worked to keep those patients strictly separate from those receiving the vaccine.
“The folks in Pinal County have done just a great job organizing,” according to vaccinator Wes Wallace, from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “It’s just a very efficient operation and it’s helped us to see a lot of folks quickly.”
Members of this particular Disaster Medical Assistance Team, or DMAT, came primarily from North Carolina. The team members were in Florence as part of a two-week mission away from their regular jobs, according to Russell McNamee, acting deputy commander for the team.
Jim Gervase of Erie, Pennsylvania, a retired pharmacist on the team, said, “all these people on the (Pinal) county health department are tremendous. … It made it easy for us to help them, because they know what they’re doing.”
Another vaccinator from North Carolina, “Dr. Ted” who declined to give his full name, said he had met “all kinds of cool people” receiving vaccinations here. “I’ve learned a lot about pickleball and equestrianism, and just the geography of the Southwest. There’s some amazing folks that live and spend time out here.”
He said the clinic started up slowly on Tuesday, allowing the team to “figure out what all the kinks were.” They then began giving more than 600 shots a day, “and it’s been absolutely fascinating.
“The cool thing about it is this is actually the best kind of medicine you can do as far as a return-on-investment. This is prevention.” Dr. Ted said his regular job is emergency medicine, and “that’s the other end of the game where it’s a lot harder to get a good result.
“So the more people we can get in and get vaccinated, the better overall response we’re going to see as far as this entire COVID-19 pandemic is concerned.”