On Thursday, November 19, and Saturday, November 21, 2009, I spent about five hours each day working as a volunteer at a vaccination clinic run by the Monroe County Public Health Department (DPH). It was one of five each day held to vaccinate at risk groups for pandemic H1N1, the Swine Flu. I worked at the one held at the former Medley Center Mall in Irondequoit.
The DPH did a great job publicizing the clinics, with the cooperation of the local media. Attendance on Thursday was somewhat overwhelming, while that on Saturday was more even in flow.
The DPH contracted with private companies for the actual vaccine administration. DPH personnel and volunteers were used for crowd control.
The observations in this piece apply only to the location I worked at, unless otherwise stated.
The Mall is empty. That meant no heat either day, and somewhat uneven hallway lighting. It also meant sparse sanitary facilities, and the men’s room had been damaged by vandalism prior to the clinic. In fact, it was flooded on Saturday. The Irondequoit Kiwanis had coffee and donuts earlier on Thursday and through about 2 on Saturday. There were no other sources for food and drink in the Mall.
On Thursday, there were four to six people giving the vaccines at any one time. The private contractors made sure that they got all their breaks in. In the late afternoon there were some 400 people in line, and a four hour wait. I was told by DPH staff that the holdup was that the providers were having to answered questions. While that may have been the case, it was clear that there were far too few providers for the demand.
Just before 5 p.m. we were told to refuse entry to any additional patients, even though the clinic had been advertised as open until 8 p.m. Most people took the news with some grace, though several self-important individuals chose to create a problem.
I had begun work at 2:30. Throughout the afternoon it was obvious that the five clinics did not seem to be talking to each other. We were getting news from patients who had been turned away from other clinics and came to the Mall. We were not the first clinic to close its doors, as far as I can determine.
On Saturday, some changes had been made. There were now about eight to ten providers, and a separate line for people with children. We were given handouts to provide patients that would answer many of the common questions.
We closed at six on the dot. During the time I was working, there were no lines beyond the clinic area, and the only real wait was in the children’s line in the clinic, perhaps 15 minutes.
Both days, we took patients with movement or other issues straight to the clinic, about 50 yards from the Mall entrance, rather than ask them to make the much longer trek around to the clinic entrance. Even then, the distance was a little daunting for some.
Signage was poor. There were two manufactured signs, one that said “Clinic here” and another that gave the target groups for the clinic. The remaining signs were made on a computer, did not last well in the rain on Thursday and did not look at all professional.
We had no handouts on Thursday and ran out of the handouts on Saturday.
Far too many adults over 65 came. Whether they thought it was the seasonal flu vaccination or not, I do not know. The clinic was not intended for them and those doses could have gone to more at-risk populations. The only people turned away had valid medical reasons for the denial, such as an allergy to eggs or being ill with a fever.
On Thursday, the clinic closed before the hour advertised. There seemed to be no interest on the part of the DPH staff in continuing to give vaccinations while they had demand.
The Monroe County DPH has about 239 employees. It would seem logical that the department would be able to staff these clinics without volunteers from other county departments and from the public. In fact, other departments did have volunteers there, and those county employees will receive comp time for the hours that they worked past their normal quitting time.
Most of the public probably is not aware that clinics like this have been planned and discussed for years, as the potential for bioterrorism arose. A great deal of time and effort has been devoted to the problem of dispensing vaccinations to a large population in a short period of time. Sites have been selected, and plans made. I cannot determine if the clinic I participated in was the result of this planning. If so, a lot of people wasted their time in the last seven years.
Why was it necessary to use contractors to give the vaccinations? The DPH employs many people with the training and qualifications to give injections. They also have, in their plans for this eventuality, other groups of people they could have called upon, such as paramedics or hospital staffs.
Why were volunteers needed? The DPH had a couple hundred employees at work on Thursday who could have worked at a clinic. Those same employees could have been used on Saturday, as well. If it was all about overtime pay or union contracts, then just how would the clinics have worked if smallpox had been used in a terrorist attack as all of those folks planned for?
Thursday was cold and rainy. Saturday was cold. I kinda resent being cold and wet while DPH secretaries sat in warm offices and surfed the Web. If the department charged with preserving and protecting public health in Monroe County cannot generate an “all hands” response for a project like the Swine Flu vaccine clinics, I have to wonder just what they would do in a more serious situation.
The Irondequoit clinic vaccinated many, many people in the hours that I worked. In that respect, it achieved its goals. More clinics are being discussed for December.
For the future clinics to be successful, there must be:
- More communication among the sites
- Site locations suitable for large crowds, to include heat, lighting, bathrooms and refreshments
- More communication with the media, especially when it comes to closing sites early
- Professional signage – it can be reused
- a perception that the Monroe County Department of Public Health, as an organization, takes the matter seriously
Table of contents for Public Health in America
- The future of Public Health in the United States
- Inside a Swine Flu vaccination clinic
- Medical panic or trolling for dollars? West Nile questions