Hope on the Horizon, As More Receive COVID-19 Vaccines.
“Hi, how are you? What time is your appointment today?”
It’s only 9:30 a.m., but staff at St. Joseph Healthcare’s Internal Medicine have already been checking in patients for two hours. What makes this scene even more unusual is that it’s Sunday, when the office in Bangor is typically closed. However, this is a Clinic Day, and the 200 patients coming in and out of these lobby doors are all here for their first dose of the coronavirus vaccination. They are part of Phase 1b of Maine’s vaccination rollout program which started at the beginning of February. Those 70 years and older are first, followed by residents ages 65 to 69. For these seniors, getting the vaccination is like winning the lottery.
“I have been so excited for this,” Jennifer Perkins says giddily. The Holden woman eagerly rolls up her sleeve for the first of two Moderna vaccinations she’ll receive, the second dose to be given four weeks later. “Life has just been shut down. My husband and I have granddaughters in Georgia that we haven’t seen in a year.”
“I was on a wait list for two other facilities,” says Kristine Adams, 73. She gestures towards her husband, Brooke sitting across the table from her. “He got a call from St. Joe’s about making an appointment to come in for the clinic. They asked if he’d like to bring his wife, so here we are.”
The Stetson couple is in a recovery room with about a dozen others who also just received their first shot. St. Joe’s requires a 15-minute waiting period to make sure there are no adverse reactions.
Lois Andrews is in there too. She too, has been waiting for that phone call from St. Joe’s saying she could receive the vaccine. “I’ve been stuck in the house a lot,” says the Hampden woman, pausing and shaking her head. “I miss just going to the store, you know? I’m not able to visit with family and friends like I used to be able to. It’s not very pleasant.”
St. Joseph Healthcare is one of numerous medical facilities around the state conducting COVID-19 vaccination clinics. In addition, Maine currently has two mass vaccination clinics. Northern Light Health operates one at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Plans are to administer up to 5,000 vaccines daily at maximum capacity, pending available doses from the state. MaineHealth runs a high-volume vaccination clinic at the former Scarborough Downs harness-racing track. They say they will be able to give as many as 2,000 doses per day, as long as the vaccines are available.
Right now, St. Joe’s is averaging between 180 and 200 vaccinations per clinic. “We receive notification on Saturday or Sunday from the state as to how many vaccine doses we’re going to be provided with,” explains Bethany McKnight, Vice President, Support Services and System Integration at St. Joseph Healthcare. “Once we know the amount, we start putting our clinic plans in place.”
Patients meeting the age criteria are then randomly selected by a computer-generated program. “We do not look at names. We are looking at a unique patient identifier,” explains Bethany. “There is no way you can call your provider to get to the top of the list.”
Sarah Andrei and Jill Akerley, both St. Joseph Healthcare Care Team Coordinators, are in charge of scheduling the clinic appointments. “We spend hours upon hours calling patients,” explains Jill.
“One week, to schedule 185 people, we had to make 700 calls,” adds Sarah.
And while that may sound like an arduous task, both women say telling patients they can come in for a COVID vaccine is like giving them a shot of hope.
“I wish we could bundle up their joy and bring it with us everywhere we go,” says Sarah, smiling. “We’ve had everything from screaming to crying. It’s truly, truly amazing.”
“When they come in for the clinic, they’re looking for us,” says Jill. “At the front door, they’re asking- where’s Jill? Where’s Sarah? They just want to thank us for calling them.”
“I remember one lady blowing kisses at us as she left,” adds Sarah. “She just kept saying ‘thank you, thank you’ the whole way out the door.”
The women recall a scene in one of their waiting rooms last weekend. “They were singing and clapping, even the staff was dancing,” says Jill. “We all tear up when we talk about it because they think that we saved their lives.”
Sarah says that, so far, the oldest person she’s called is 96.
“99 for me,” recalls Jill. “And they were both so excited to come in for their shots.”
Wanda Curtis has mixed feelings about getting her first COVID-19 dose. As she waits in a recovery room, her husband waits for her in the car. “He’s not in the St. Joseph Healthcare system so we weren’t able to get appointments together,” says the Dexter senior. “It’s tough having me be able to get it but not him. But we’re hopeful that things will turn around and more vaccines will become available.”
Curtis also admits she’s concerned about the new mutant strains of the virus starting to show up. “I’m double masked today,” she says, “but now they’re talking about triple masking. I’m just so thankful to be able to get this shot and have a shot at not getting the virus.”
Ken and Elaine Buckley say even with the vaccines, they will still mask up in public. “I grew up in England,” says Ken, and the now-Bangor resident remembers being seven years old during World War 2 and the threat of poisonous gas being dropped. “I went down to the local church and got fixed for a gas masks,” he recalls. “I carried that mask around with me for five years. It didn’t bother me. It just became a habit.”
The couple says they stick close to home whenever possible. Ken calling their trip to the vaccination clinic, “the biggest event of the week for us.”
“I go to the grocery store, against my kids’ wishes,” says Elaine. “And when I do go out, I wear two masks and gloves.” They have been eating only at home during the pandemic. “Thankfully, she’s a fantastic cook,” adds Ken.
For some seniors at these vaccination clinics, this is the first time in nearly a year that they’ve had any sort of social interactions in person. “In one of the recovery rooms last weekend, they didn’t want to leave,” remembers Jill. “Everyone was having conversations with people they had just met. When their 15 minutes was up, these people wanted to stay because it was the only contact with others they’d had since March of last year.”
When Beverly McCluskey saw that the only available appointment for a vaccine was in Greenville, she was willing to drive the two hours each way from her home in Hampden. “But then I got a call that there was an opening here,” she says. “Oh, I was so thankful.”
After she receives her second dose in four weeks, Beverly sees freedom in her future. As for what she plans to do first, Beverly smiles, “Oh golly, I’ll probably go outside and holler ‘Yahoo!’”
“I can’t tell you how many patients have come through and said, ‘Wow, after my second shot I can breathe a sigh of relief,'” says Bethany. “I feel like I’m not going to die. And that’s the bluntest way they say it to us. It’s a weight being lifted off their shoulders that’s been there for a very long time.”
As for staff at St. Joseph Healthcare, that glimmer of light at the end of a very dark and very long tunnel, is what motivates them to keep going. ” I think this has made me see more positives in situations,” says Sarah.
“I wish everybody could experience what we’re experiencing,” adds Jill. “This is not the bad side of COVID. This is the good side of COVID.”