EAST HARTFORD, CT—Almost a dozen lanes of orange cones stretched the length of a 7,000-foot abandoned airfield at the site of Connecticut’s first mass COVID vaccination operation, which began Monday with a steady trickle of cars.
The site was the Pratt & Whitney Runway, decommissioned sometime in the late 1990s, and now used only occasionally for training police dogs. That’s according to Lisa Szewczul, a vice president at the aerospace manufacturer, who along with East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc, was enduring January winds and the persistent hum of generators standing near vaccination trailers somewhere near the middle of the sprawling runway.
“At Pratt, we’re very committed to being part of the solution,” Szewczul said, referring to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which, as of Friday, had killed almost 6,600 people in Connecticut.
Every minute or so, a car with a blue plastic marker stuck to its roof would roll by, park next to one of the trailers and a nurse would come out and stick someone inside with a shot. With Monday’s sparse traffic, the cones stretching over a mile of tarmac seemed excessive. But organizers said Monday was something of a trial run. A warm up.
Mark Masselli, founder and CEO of Community Health Center, said he was expecting to vaccinate 500 people on Monday. He said they expected twice that on Tuesday. They plan to run the operation Monday through Friday for its first week. After that, they will be vaccinating patients seven days a week. On Monday they had 20 vaccinators on site and one full-time doctor in case anyone has an adverse reaction. Masselli said this is rare.
Nurses were moving in and out of the trailers wearing masks and face shields. Nearby, someone’s radio squelched. On the other end somebody said “Fifteen minutes is standard. Thirty minutes for a history of anaphylactic.” Patients were being asked to hang around for a few minutes after the shot for monitoring.
Outside one of the trailers, a nurse was explaining to an older patient “Because you got the Pfizer today, you need to get the Pfizer again in 21 days.” Both versions of the COVID vaccine approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration require two doses to be effective. The shots need to be spaced a few weeks apart.
Lynn Taylor and Cindy Dunaj, a pair of advanced practice registered nurses, were chatting up a patient while administering the vaccine. Taylor said later some of her talk was a diversionary tactic.
“It kinda takes the focus off the puncturing of the skin,” she said.
“The more you relax, the less it hurts later,” Dunaj said.
Taylor agreed. “You gotta relax the arm. Like a piece of spaghetti.”
Of the patients rolling up to the vaccination trailers, few wanted to be photographed or interviewed by a reporter. It wasn’t a concern for 77-year-old Canterbury resident John Corey. “Sure,” he said. “What do I care?”
As of last week, Connecticut had vaccinated more than 150,000 residents against the COVID-19 virus. Most of them have been frontline health care workers or residents of nursing homes. Last week the state opened up eligibility to residents over the age of 75, the first wave of a new phase that includes more than 1.3 million residents.
Corey, who rolled up to the trailer in an old silver F-150 pickup truck, was part of this new cohort. When he got to Taylor and Dunaj and rolled down his window, they started in on their diversionary chat. One readied the needle, one was asking about Corey’s allergies.
“The only thing I’m allergic to is seafood so unless you’re planning on feeding me a lobster, don’t worry about it,” he said. They gave him the shot. He didn’t flinch. They told him he should stick around for a few minutes of monitoring just the same.