Arizona Attempts Unprecedented Mass Vaccination Plan As Coronavirus Surges

By Katherine Davis-Young
Published: Thursday, January 14, 2021 - 9:56am
Updated: Thursday, January 14, 2021 - 10:03am

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State Farm Stadium
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Cars enter a parking lot at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Jan. 13, 2021, on the third day of drive-through vaccinations at the site.

How will we get enough people vaccinated to stop the pandemic? It’s a major logistical question. One strategy states are turning to is mass vaccination. In Arizona, that’s now happening around the clock at an NFL stadium.

Since 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, State Farm Stadium in Glendale — home to the Arizona Cardinals — has been the site of thousands of drive-through vaccine appointments. Several drive-through vaccination sites have been operating in Arizona since mid-December, but this is the state's first 24-hour site. 

Previously, vaccines had been available only to health care workers and people in long term care facilities. The launch of the State Farm Stadium site coincided with expansion of vaccine eligibility in Maricopa County to anyone 75 or older, law enforcement, childcare workers and school staff.  

Cars have lined up by the hundreds at all hours of the day. People stay in their vehicles and receive their shot through the car window. Then they wait in their cars for a brief observation period before driving home. 

“It took about an hour, it was surprisingly well organized, though," said high school math teacher Charlie Jannetto.

Jannetto was one of the first to get a shot when the stadium vaccination site opened this week for prioritized groups. He grabbed the earliest appointment slot he could get, which was just after midnight Tuesday. 

“I’ve never done a late-night vaccine in the parking lot of a stadium before,” Jannetto said.

Most people haven’t.

Cars in the drive-through vaccination
Chad Snow/KJZZ
Cars in the drive-through vaccination line at the State Farm Stadium site in Glendale at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2021.

“We have never attempted to vaccinate the U.S. at the scale that we are now asking states to do," said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Nuzzo is one of the authors of a recent study looking at how prepared local public health departments are for mass vaccinations.

“When asked if you had to do this for the majority of your population in a short period of time, could you? None of them were really at that point,” Nuzzo said.

Nuzzo said it’s not just a matter of directing traffic for thousands of cars — it’s finding enough qualified staff to give the shots, managing appointment bookings. Not to mention reminding everyone they’ll need to go through this process again in a few weeks for a second dose.

Those are major obstacles. But Will Humble, the former director of Arizona’s health department said, big vaccine drive-throughs are one of the only good options right now since these first approved vaccines are shipped in huge quantities that have to be kept cold and used quickly once opened.

“You’re boxed into using approaches that you don’t want to use because you’re stuck with the cold-chain requirements that the FDA authorized," said Humble.

A worker prepares to administer a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A worker prepares to administer a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the State Farm Stadium vaccination site in Glendale on Jan. 12, 2021.

Arizona, like most states, started preparing for the vaccine months ago. Even so, there have been setbacks. Online systems for required vaccination appointments have been overwhelmed. And shots have not gone out as fast as the state hoped. So far, Arizona has administered only about a third of the doses it has received.

“It hasn’t been optimal, but has been better than nothing," Humble said.

Gov. Doug Ducey is anxious to accelerate the process. His health department quickly organized the stadium site with the help of a million-dollar private grant and volunteers. Officials say the site will have the capacity to vaccinate 6,000 people per day or more

But Ducey has enacted few policies to mitigate Arizona’s severe outbreak. And Humble worries even with Arizona’s big vaccine sites fully booked, it will be months before the state can outpace the virus.

“The governor and our health director are just banking on vaccinating our way out of this," Humble said. "But in the meantime, there’s just going to be a lot of dead bodies because those are the people that became infected."

State leadership defends their focus on vaccines. Dr. Cara Christ, health department director, said Monday she hopes the 24/7 site will be the first of many in Arizona.

A card given to those who got the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A card given to those who got the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the State Farm Stadium vaccination site in Glendale on Jan. 12, 2021.

“This sets the stage for later this year when the challenge will be to get millions vaccinated to build herd immunity needed to defeat COVID-19," said Christ.

Nuzzo said each new mass vaccination effort will bring more logistical challenges. But even with setbacks, she said, getting these sites running in Arizona and across the country is a significant step. 

“Thinking about doing this at the scale we are attempting is extraordinary," Nuzzo said. 

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