(Capital BlueCross) One clinic. Four days. A thousand shots. A million thanks.
For 1,000 senior citizens from as near as Harrisburg and as far away as Millersburg, the light at the end of the long, dark, COVID-19 tunnel was a storied community health center in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill district.
The Hamilton Health Center, a community health icon for over 50 years, hosted a four-day COVID-19 vaccination clinic in mid-March organized and sponsored by Capital BlueCross and retail pharmacy chain Rite Aid. The vaccine clinic is one of several the two companies have organized and hosted this spring, helping to bring the vaccine to thousands of high-risk individuals.
Rite Aid pharmacy team members administered the first of two doses of the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine to about 250 seniors on each of the clinic’s four days at Hamilton Health Center. Those same seniors will return for their second dose over a four-day period starting in late March.
“This is huge,” said Hamilton Health Center CEO Jeannine Peterson. “We’re doing a thousand shots right here in the center of Harrisburg, and the focus is on the highest risk population. We are able to reach people who historically have not had equal access to healthcare.”
Fear and worry over the virus is slowly giving way to relief and gratitude for the vaccine. “People are so, so grateful,” Peterson said.
Harrisburg resident Lance Freeman got the first shot of the day on the clinic’s second day in operation. The retired human resources professional, who spent 17 years with the Harrisburg School District, was one of six members of the Omega Psi Phi alumni fraternity who, alongside Capital BlueCross volunteers, greeted, guided, and assisted patients throughout the day.
He was one of nearly 70 million Americans, and 35 million seniors, who had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of March 15, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’ve always had a special relationship with Hamilton Health Center,” Freeman said, adding that the center is a popular stop among volunteers from that 110-year-old, international fraternity.
“The pandemic cut off and stopped so many of the things we took for granted,” Freeman said. “Businesses. Schools. Access to family. Economically, emotionally, medically, it has been a big challenge for this community.”
After getting his vaccine, Harrisburg resident Rubin Rochester, 70, sat in the post-vaccination waiting area, six feet from the next nearest seat, with an egg timer ticking in his lap.
“I made a wager with a friend of mine that I would get my stimulus check of $1,400 quicker than I would get the COVID-19 vaccine,” Rochester said, the timer tick-tick-ticking in the background.
“I lost,” he added.
Rochester’s timer dinged at the 15-minute mark. Having experienced no adverse reaction to the shot, he was now free to leave. Asked how the vaccine would change his life, the retired state worker cast a quizzical glance.
“It’ll save my life,” he said.
Sonya Johnson, a regional pharmacy head for Rite Aid in Central Pennsylvania, praised the sponsors, volunteers, and staff from the Hamilton Health Center who worked to keep the clinic running smoothly and safely.
“People didn’t wait. They were able to get in, get their vaccine, and ask questions to healthcare providers,” she said. “Most want to know what to expect. It just makes them more comfortable to know they’re going to be OK.”
“I cannot tell you how rewarding it is to help people find this vaccine,” said volunteer Jamie Mazzocco, a clinical pharmacist with Capital BlueCross. “We are in tears at times throughout the day when we volunteer because of how grateful people are and how much it touches us to be able to help.”
For 73-year-old Barb Heberlig, the COVID-19 pandemic did what the threat of polio, influenza, and the measles could not do: It convinced the long-retired bank employee to roll up her sleeve.
“This is the very first vaccine that I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Heberlig said. “I was compelled this time because it scares me that we are not allowed to interact with anybody anymore. I feel good. I’m glad that I got it.”
Heberlig misses the card games, the exercise classes, the dances, the parties, and her friends. “The (local) senior center has been closed since March 15 last year,” she said. “We did everything there, and it kept us young.”
The past year, she added, was “weird.”
A ticking egg timer in his hand, Joseph Cannon, a retired school janitor, said some of his friends questioned the existence of the virus and warned him not to get the vaccine.
“I know a whole lot of them. They were trying to talk me out of getting one,” Cannon said. He would have none of it.
“You saw all those people die, so it can’t be no joke. What kind of joke would that be?” he asked defiantly, adding, “I’m going to get mine.”