Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a recurring series of pathologists’ and laboratory professionals’ reflections and stories about work and life throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s not like we’ve done this before.”
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, those seven words became almost a mantra for Anne Walsh-Feeks, who trained and practiced as a Pathologists’ Assistant before moving into ambulatory practice operations and becoming the chief operating officer for Ambulatory Operations for Stony Brook Medicine. At the beginning of the pandemic, when the health system had to pivot from their usual operations, those seven words may have been worrisome. At the turn of the pandemic, when vaccines became available, they became a challenge.
Getting those vaccines to the people of eastern Long Island, where Stony Brook Medicine is located, and serves the largest number of people in the area, was an effort that Ms. Walsh-Feeks was intricately involved in, and not without its share of worry.
“We had never done this before, and I lost sleep at night thinking, ‘how are we going to do this?’” Ms. Walsh-Feeks recalls.
Through a partnership with the New York State Department of Health, National Guard and the Department of Environmental Conservation, Mass Vaccination Sites (MVS) were set up and the Stony Brook Medicine team along with forest rangers and biologists, set up the points of distribution, or PODS, complete with infrastructure and database, within a matter of days.
In addition to the MDS, Stony Brook University Hospital was also allocated vaccine. Ms. Walsh-Feeks and the Stony Brook Medicine team identified a large ambulatory site within the hospital system would become the main spot for weekend mass vaccinations. Starting in January 2021, and for most weekends for months on end, they vaccinated between 1,000 and 1,400 people per day over the course of 12 hours. Employees from Stony Brook Medicine stepped up to help in an instant.
“The people that volunteered to work with us in these PODS were amazing,” Ms. Walsh-Feeks says. “I’m sure they had better things to do on a Saturday morning, but the came out, they showed up.”
In the early days of their PODS, Ms. Walsh-Feeks says that she and her daughter, who also volunteered at the PODS, would clear the shelves of the local Dollar Stores and Staples of all the Band-Aids and alcohol wipes to ensure they had enough for the vaccine clinic. They received many curious looks, but when they explained what they were doing, they were cheered on. Those first few weekends saw mainly older people in their 70s and 80s coming with family members to receive their dose of the vaccine. It was an exhausting effort, Ms. Walsh-Feeks admits, who estimates as a lead for many of these PODS she went many weeks without a day off. Much like many of her colleagues, she was at her “regular” job Monday through Friday, and volunteering and running these vaccination sites on the weekends. “As much as you were exhausted, it was a great feeling at the end of the day. Everyone always left with a smile on their face.”
Let no vaccine go to waste
When it came time to start vaccinating people, Ms. Walsh-Feeks and her team were hyper aware about not wasting any doses. In the early days especially, “Hospitals were getting allocations,” she explains, “and you didn’t know what you were going to get or when you were going to get it. It was a complete crap shoot.” The vaccines had to be kept frozen until use, which made the logistics of the clinics even more complex. In addition, once they were thawed the vaccine dose had to be used—or thrown out. That proved a bit tricky as the vaccination sites neared the end of the day. If they had to “crack a vial” that contained 10 doses, but there were only two people left to be vaccinated, well, what could have been wasted instead became an opportunity when some creative thinking was applied.
“We had a wait list,” Ms. Walsh-Feeks notes. “And the vaccination site ended at 7 pm.” She would tell the people on the waitlist to show up at 6:30, and she would sit with them while they filled out consent forms, and once the last person at the vaccine clinic was vaccinated, she knew exactly how many of her waitlisters she could vaccinate.
The success of their vaccination clinics became so widespread that community groups would often reach out to the leadership and “pop up” PODS would be arranged in convenient community locations including schools and churches.
“We all had bins of supplies in our cars,” Ms. Walsh-Feeks says, and with short notice there would be an ambulance at the site, and groups of nurses, including nursing students who couldn’t do clinical hours during the pandemic, to make up the workforce needed to get more people vaccinated. Most recently Stony Brook Medicine has been contacted by schools to do vaccinations for kids 12 and over as they get ready to return to in-person learning.
“We’re not turning down any opportunity to give a vaccine,” she says. “We dove headfirst into this, and we figured out how to do this really, really well, and really safely.”
PODS on pause—for now
While the mass vaccination sites have ended and dismantled, with the exception of one, Ms. Walsh-Feeks notes that they may be reinstated—and fast—as booster shots are needed and available. “We’ve kept all of our supplies intact and kept everybody’s competencies up,” she says. “We are waiting for direction and feel confident we can set up PODS with very little notice”.
“We’ll also go out into the communities, because we recognize that was a really effective approach, to partner with schools, faith-based and community-based organizations,” Ms. Walsh-Feeks says.
Her training as a pathologists’ assistant definitely gave her an advantage in leading these vaccination efforts, Ms. Walsh-Feeks says. “As a PA there is a roadway to doing certain things, you have to follow procedures, and you have to be incredibly detail-oriented and have good time management skills.” And those are the skills, she notes, that helped her, as well as the team, succeed with these successful vaccination events.
Even though they’d never done this before.