Editor's note: Reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. For the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
"Hey, guys! Congratulations on getting the shot. You did it!” a pumped-up Eric Silvernail boisterously cheers. The Veterans Affairs contractor and volunteer at Grand Canyon University’s COVID-19 Point of Dispensing vaccination site applauds as Arthur Blodgett and wife Sherry Wisbey drive up alongside him in their van, dance music playing in the background.
The couple made the 30-mile trek from east Mesa to the site for their first dose of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine.
After just 10 minutes in line, maneuvering around the Canyon Ventures Building, filtering through check-in and a quick stop under a row of tents to get their shots, they had accomplished what had seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier.
Like Blodgett and Wisbey, GCU, too, has accomplished what seemed like the impossible.
When the POD opened Jan. 26, the goal was to vaccinate 500 to 800 people per day, five days a week. Now volunteers at the site, located at the University’s 27th Avenue business complex, were administering an average of more than 1,700 doses per day, six days a week, in the first three weeks of March. By April 15, it reached 100,000 vaccinations.
Based on his conversations with supervisors of other PODs, GCU Emergency Preparedness Manager Marcus Castle believes the site’s throughput rate is the highest in Maricopa County, meaning volunteers move shot recipients through the site and get them vaccinated at a dizzyingly fast pace.
And GCU isn’t stopping there.
Castle would like to see 2,000 shots administered each day, particularly into the arms of the vulnerable communities that GCU calls its neighbors. It passed the 50,000 mark in its first 38 days and the 100,000 mark a little more than a month later.
It’s able to reach those numbers because of representatives from Event Services and Welcome Programs who are well-versed in managing big events, such as Welcome Week. Castle credits those teams, experts in traffic flow, event set-up, volunteer relations and logistics, for helping make the POD as efficient as it is.
“They’re like our Alexa. You say it and, ‘Wait, it’s there!’” said Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic Director Connie Colbert, who manages the POD site alongside Castle.
While GCU’s vaccination venue isn’t the biggest in Maricopa County, and while those numbers might sound modest compared to the output of stadium-size vaccination hub State Farm Stadium, Castle said what those numbers mean to him is that a lot more people might not get critically ill or die from the virus, all because GCU chose to do something.
“It’s still more than what we would have done if we just sat around waiting,” said Castle. “I think that’s an important piece.”
GCU’s unique approach
That exponential trajectory is quite a feat for the University, whose leaders a year ago never would have envisioned that GCU would go from teaching students to also running a vaccination site during a historic global pandemic.
In December, Maricopa County asked GCU for volunteers to man its PODs, and GCU nursing students helped fill that void. But the University, in partnership with the county, also wanted to run its own site and run it in a way that would reflect the values of a Christian university.
After just 10 days of setting up the site, that’s what it did.
What’s unique about GCU’s vaccination hub is that while other venues contract with the county, which pays sites several thousand dollars per day, GCU does it for free.
Not that the county is hands-off. It supplies volunteers, any help the POD needs and more than five dozen iPads volunteers use to register anyone who qualifies for the shot.
“This is truly GCU stepping up and saying we want to help and be part of the solution, to quote (University) President (Brian) Mueller. This is one of the ways to do it,” Castle said from the POD’s bustling command center, where he’s seated next to a cut-out of Mueller, his fists pumped up in the air with a quote bubble that says, “You’re doing great!”
Because GCU isn’t funded by the county or state, it relies daily on 100 to 150 student, staff, faculty and Maricopa County volunteers. Campus leaders also were determined that the POD would fit into its Christian mission to be a transformative force in the community.
The University wanted to make sure it was serving its neighbors, an underserved community of essential workers, immigrants and refugees who live in an area of west Phoenix where the COVID-19 infection rates are among the highest in the state.
That meant doing something else no other site does — offer a walk-through option for anyone who doesn’t have their own means of transportation.
GCU’s POD also operates a help registry. Volunteers onsite assist anyone who might not have a computer at home, who might not have access to the internet, or who are having difficulties using technology.
“It’s something that’s unique for us, as well, because we identified that as another big piece in the community that’s needed,” Castle said. “We want to make sure we can answer any questions. If that’s all we can do, then we’ve done our job.”
Colbert remembers one woman who showed up at the site. She has cancer but couldn’t get an appointment. “She ended up coming to our walk-up, and we got her in that day,” Colbert said, adding that grateful isn’t a strong enough word to describe her reaction.
“We’ve had people drive and drive and drive,” Castle said. “‘Can you help us?’ And we’re able to do something for them. That’s really the big story here. We’ve added a community-based approach.
“My goal is that you’re going to leave our site with a vaccine, with an appointment for the near future or at least some sort of educational piece of paper to help you schedule an appointment once you meet the qualifications.”
Partnering with the consulate
The vaccination goal is particularly important to Castle in his service to those underserved communities. Perhaps the most fitting example of how the University is accomplishing that is through its partnership with the Phoenix office of the Consulate General of Mexico.
It was during a debriefing meeting that Mueller and Colangelo College of Business Professor Eduardo Borquez started talking about the vaccination hub.
“I saw our president express concern that the community around us was not receiving the vaccine, which was one of the reasons that we as a university wanted to have the hub,” Borquez said.
They spoke about the difficulties of reaching those vulnerable communities: the lack of technological knowledge, the lack of access to technology, not knowing how to register, not speaking English and not being able to find the vaccination site.
“So while the vaccine was in their community, they did not have access to it,” Borquez said.
That’s when he offered to connect Castle and his team to the consulate. GCU in March sent Spanish-speaking volunteers to the consulate to vaccinate that office’s employees and register its constituents for appointments. More than 70 of them received their vaccinations at the University that first weekend of the vaccination partnership.
“We as a university have really met our community where they’re at,” Borquez said.
Said Castle, “One thing we have learned from the very beginning is that there is such a big education piece. Working at the consulate, helping them, training them – it’s one of those pieces that shows we’re moving in the right direction.”
Cristina Maldonado, a GCU health care education major, knew she, too, was moving in the right direction during one of her many volunteer shifts at the site when this happened: “There was this one lady and her mother — you know we have a wait list. They waited for four hours to get their vaccine. The daughter was getting her second dose, and the mom was getting her first dose. They were just so grateful.
They said, ‘It was worth the wait.’”
It made Maldonado realize the importance of the work GCU is doing. “It changed everything for me,” she said.
Maldonado, who is also a student worker, often will continue to volunteer at the POD site for two or three hours after her work shift has ended.
“I just love hearing people’s reactions,” she said. “It makes me think, I guess we ARE doing some really good work here.”
Sophomore nursing major Judith Torres Ruiz spends about 32 hours a week at the vaccination hub, 20 as a student worker and the rest as a volunteer.
“We’re part of history in a way,” she said of why she spends so much time at the POD.
But it’s the people who inspire her to continue to volunteer.
“We had people cry because they’re so thankful,” Torres Ruiz said. “Honestly, the people that are so grateful to us is what keeps me coming back.”
In the end, “it’s the caring for each other,” said Castle.
During his career in emergency management, he hasn’t quite felt the same kind of caring he feels at GCU.
It has been a tough year, he said, with so much time spent away from family to help care for other people’s families in the most difficult of times.
“Having people that just truly care about the community and want to do what’s best for the community — not for any other reason other than it’s the right thing to do — that’s what makes it special.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.