Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Rylan Dressendorfer
GCU News Bureau
A half dozen volunteers on Monday ventured out of the confines of the happiest vaccine dilution room on earth to join a group of paramedics and other volunteers outside for the big moment.
“Why?” he asked her.
“It was a BIG thing that we did.”
And it was.
With the sweep of a hand, one of those paramedics administered the day’s final COVID-19 vaccine into the arm of Khalid Mahmoud.
Volunteers at the site erupted into applause.
“Beat COVID!!!” they cheered, throwing their masks into the air and celebrating all they had accomplished: successfully operating a mass vaccination site like none other -- one operated free-of-charge to the county, thanks to thousands of volunteers, and one that focused unwaveringly on the most marginalized populations.
“I feel honored,” said Mahmoud, a GCU biology/pre-med junior, after receiving the vaccine. “It’s nice to be the last one, especially since we’re wrapping this up.”
Mahmoud was the first hire for GCU’s Emergency Health and Safety Department in the first days of coronavirus protocols, when the University began its quarantine and isolation efforts. Fittingly, he was the last to get his shot, bookending the lifespan of the state’s most unique Point of Dispensing vaccination site.
It seemed to be a poetic end for the GCU POD, as mass vaccination efforts transition to smaller indoor venues in the evolution of the COVID fight.
Since opening Jan. 26 at GCU’s 27th Avenue business complex, thousands of volunteers at the one-of-a-kind, community-based POD disbursed 116,789 doses of the vaccine.
At its height, volunteers administered 2,646 vaccines in one day, with the highest throughput being 274 vaccines in an hour.
Those numbers far outpaced what Colbert and fellow POD manager Marcus Castle ever imagined. Neither could they ever have imagined just how daunting operating a mass vaccination site would be.
“I don’t think we knew any better,” said Colbert with a laugh.
But it was the best solution they could think of to keep the campus and the surrounding community safe.
“We were challenged to bring vaccines onto campus,” said Castle, GCU’s Emergency Preparedness Manager. “We thought, this (operating a POD) is probably the fastest way we could do it.”
So when Castle called Colbert with the idea, she said, “Yeah! Let’s do it. Let’s go.”
And go they did, creating a vaccination site in just 10 days.
She remembers learning so much that first week about the logistics of operating a vaccination site. She also remembers just trying to get her bearings.
Castle said, “We started with, ‘Maybe, we can do 500 (vaccinations) a day,’ and then when we broke 600, I said, ‘Oh my gosh!’”
When the POD hit 1,000 vaccinations in a day, “It was just incredible,” Colbert added. “… Now doing 1,000 is like nothing, people are bored.”
Nancy Morgan remembers that day volunteers vaccinated 2,646 people. It was March 27.
“Marcus was brutal to us that day,” she said with a laugh from the dilution room in Building 66, where the vaccines are prepared.
She stopped to point out a small plastic bin at the next table. It contained one of the final doses of the vaccine, neatly placed in a baggie and ready for a runner to deliver to the paramedics outside.
“I’ve been here since the first day,” she said, not knowing what to expect from GCU.
She hasn’t volunteered at any other site since.
“It’s just been wonderful,” she said, then asked the dilution room volunteers, “How many people love it here at GCU?” as hands raised up in the air. “You can ask any of them. We’re in withdrawal today (because of the closing).”
The volunteers in the dilution room have grown so close that they started a list with their contact information so they could keep in touch.
“Everybody comes back because they feel like they’re wanted, that they’re needed and they’re valued,” said Morgan.
Volunteers said they didn’t get the same kind of warm feeling at other sites.
“Almost everybody that’s come has said, ‘You’re the most organized POD. You’re the friendliest POD,’” said Colbert, who shared how volunteers asked to help on the last day, even though they knew the volunteer shifts were full. They just wanted to be there for the end.
Leslie Zoltan, a nurse anesthetist who volunteered in the dilution room, said she loved GCU’s vaccination site because of the students.
“The students were remarkable – very cheerful and wanting to help. It wasn’t like they were getting something. They were doing it like the rest of us, like the volunteers, and you can really tell their attitude. I’m amazed at Grand Canyon students,” Zoltan said.
Morgan echoed Zoltan’s sentiments about GCU’s vaccination site: That everyone there shared the University’s vision of serving the community, no paycheck required.
“This is grassroots,” Morgan said.
While other vaccination sites contracted by the county or state received thousands of dollars a day to operate those sites, GCU did not seek compensation, saving taxpayers significant amounts of money.
“We didn’t ask to be reimbursed for the expenses of operating the vaccination site because we knew our faculty, staff and student volunteers would step up in a big way,” GCU President Brian Mueller said. “They are so proud that they could be part of the COVID-19 solution in our neighborhood.”
A sense of community
Castle emphasized, “It’s all about community. They (volunteers) are doing this because we’ve built a community within our POD.”
“They’ve all become like a big family,” Colbert said. “… I don’t think any other POD is getting an email list together so we can keep in touch.”
It has taken that sense of community to help the marginalized populations GCU sees as its mission to serve.
The idea since the beginning always has been to find a solution, not just for GCU, but for the University’s neighbors -- those essential workers, immigrants and refugees who live in an area with some of the highest instances of COVID in the state.
“It was our goal from the onset (to serve those vulnerable communities),” said Colbert.
GCU’s vaccination site helped those populations by offering a walk-up area for those who might not have their own vehicles and by operating a help registry to assist anyone having trouble getting an appointment, whether it’s because they do not have access to technology or can’t navigate the appointment site. GCU also reached out to those vulnerable communities by partnering with organizations such as Chicanos Por La Causa and the Mexican Consulate to help people receive a vaccination.
“Now, at the end, we see everybody at all the other sites trying to almost mirror what we we’re doing here,” Castle said.
If you ask Castle and Colbert what they are most proud of in GCU’s journey during COVID, they talk about the valuable real-world experiences the vaccination site gave students.
“We don’t think some of our student workers understand the magnitude of the experience they were able to gain running a site like this,” Castle said.
Colbert also loves how GCU was the only POD she knew of that helped people register for their vaccinations. If they were qualified for a vaccination and didn’t have an appointment, GCU took them in and helped them get an appointment – sometimes that day.
But they both agree what they are most proud of is the GCU community.
“All of the departments kind of just came in together,” Colbert said. “… It really was everybody, from faculty to staff to student workers. It was so much collaboration within GCU that I’m super proud of.”
What’s next for Castle and Colbert is to decompress for a few days and return Building 66 to the doctoral program, which occupied the site before the POD did. Then it’s time to take all they’ve learned and ramp up for the fall.
Other organizations could have chosen to operate a vaccination site, like the University did, Castle said, though he doesn’t know if any organization could have done it the same way GCU did. “We’ve always done things a little bit different. I don’t think anybody can say we’re following anybody’s playbook but our own now.”
As Colbert said, it was a BIG thing the GCU community did; expect them to do more big things, COVID or not.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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