Valley Mass Vaccine Clinics Kick Off Important, but Not Final, Step in Pandemic

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – With more than 2,000 people getting their COVID-19 vaccinations Thursday, the Mahoning Valley took an important step toward the end of the pandemic with the start of mass vaccine clinics.

In downtown Youngstown, the city’s health department administered 515 vaccines at the Covelli Centre, while Mahoning County Public Health gave 1,650 shots at the former Dillard’s store at the Southern Park Mall. The two organizations will continue holding the mass clinics for several weeks. Already, Youngstown City Health District is planning for weekly events at the Covelli Centre through May 6, while the county health department plans on hosting events every Friday and Saturday, though it’s waiting to find out its allotment of shots before opening appointments.

“We’re very pleased at everything today. We’ve been booked for almost a week and we’re also fully booked for our April 10 vaccination clinic,” said Ryan Tekac, commissioner of Mahoning County Public Health. “Initially, we were promised 2,500 doses each week, but we won’t find out until Tuesday or Wednesday of this upcoming week. We’re waiting until then to open up appointments for April 16 and 17.”

Likewise at the downtown site, all appointments for Thursday’s event and the next two – on April 8 and 12 – are booked, said Youngstown health commissioner Erin Bishop. 

“We’re going to be pretty busy in the coming weeks,” she said. 

Appointments for the Covelli Centre clinics can be made HERE, while appointments for the clinics at Southern Park Mall can be made HERE. A list of other vaccination sites in Mahoning County is available on Ohio’s coronavirus website.

A member of the Ohio National Guard calls the next patient over to get their COVID-19 vaccine at the Youngstown City Health District’s mass clinic at the Covelli Centre.

With about 30% of the county’s population vaccinated as of Wednesday’s report from the Ohio Department of Health, the message from Dr. James Kravec, medical director of Mahoning County Public Health and chief clinical officer for Mercy Health-Youngstown, is a simple one: get a vaccine.

“There are different types and different locations you can get it, but the most important thing that’s going to get us to the end of this pandemic is getting herd immunity. To get there, we need people vaccinated,” he said. “ We’re getting there and things like what we’re doing today at the mall help, but there’s still a ways to go. We’ll get there if we continue to get people vaccinated.”

Mass vaccine clinics like the ones hosted by the health departments are an important part of that effort, he added, because of the sheer number of people getting their shots. Tekac said the clinics previously held at the Austintown Senior Center had topped out at around 760 vaccinations, while the city health department’s clinics are usually around 350 per day, Bishop said. Being able to administer 2,100-plus in a day greatly builds on those efforts.

Those who have already gotten their vaccine – either the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines – to continue with safety measures like wearing a mask in public and social distancing.

“We can safely gather with other people who’ve been vaccinated, but things like going into large crowds or going to grocery stores or other kinds of activities, the recommendation is still to wear a mask in order to reduce community spread,” kravec said. “Once we get vaccinated, it’s not over. … This is an important step, but it’s not the last step we have. The final immunization doesn’t kick in until two weeks after the last dose is given. We’re safer and it’s absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t change everything we’ve been doing.”

Both health departments are using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the mass clinics. The decision, both Bishop and Tekac said, is largely due to logistics.

“It makes it so much easier because you don’t have to worry about them coming back. When we did the mass clinic at [Youngstown State University on Tuesday, we did 1,053 people and they all have to come back for their second dose and we try to make sure they come back,” Bishop said. “Today, it’s easy because once they’re done, they don’t have to come back and we don’t have to worry about if they’ll get their next shot.”

At both sites, the agencies are getting outside help. The Ohio National Guard is assisting at the Covelli Centre by administering shots, while volunteers from local health systems – Southwoods Health, Akron Children’s Hospital, Mercy Health-Youngstown and Direction Home of Eastern Ohio – are giving shots at the mall clinic.

“We’re very lucky to have the Ohio National Guard out here. We’ve been working them, starting with testing back in the late summer and early fall,” Bishop said, noting that their work allows the city health department to continue offering other clinics throughout the city. “Since the guard is here, I’m able to have my staff, today for example, at the Eugenia Atkinson Recreation Center administering second doses. We have to have those simultaneous clinics running, which takes a lot of staff time.”

Linda Mervin, a registered nurse working for Mahoning County Public Health, said the extra help from volunteer nurses at the mall clinic has been a great boon for the effort.

“We’re used to doing mid-sized clinics, around 700 or 800. Even though this is bigger, we have a lot of nurses here so I’m not worried about it being unorganized. I know we can all do it,” she said in between administering shots Thursday morning. “It’s great to see everybody come out to help us. Everyone’s excited to get involved.”

Linda Mervin, a nurse with Mahoning County Public Health, at the agency’s mass vaccine clinic inside the former Dillard’s store at the Southern Park Mall.

Having nurses give the shots has also made the process smoother for those getting their vaccines, she said.

“Some people are a little anxious. We try to give them a little bit of small talk and joke around so they’re feeling a little more at ease,” she said. “We’re all trying to be personable and friendly instead of making it a production line: come in, sit down, get your shot, leave. We want people to feel comfortable here.”

In addition to the medical volunteers, the Mahoning County Sheriff Department had provided the tables and chairs needed to run the clinic – and even did some cleaning of the former department store, which has been empty since 2019.

“Since the pandemic started, the Mahoning Valley has really stood up and stuck together,” Tekac said. “When the state approached us about doing one of these sites, we said yes and immediately started reaching out to our health-care partners and volunteers.”

Also a factor in the clinics’ success is community buy-in. A study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation at the end of March reported 17% of people would “wait and see” before getting a vaccine while 7% said they would if required and 13% would “absolutely not” get vaccinated against the coronavirus. The latter two categories have stayed roughly steady since monthly polling began in December, while the “wait and see” category has dropped each month from 34% in December.

From Kravec’s perspective, having mass vaccination sites serves a purpose beyond just getting shots in arms. Coverage and discussions about the event can drive more people to get vaccinated.

“There are a lot of people coming today. There’s excitement; I saw that as I walked in,” he said. “That only continues to promote the vaccines and the effort we’re putting in. Hopefully these people go home and tell people they got a vaccine today and tell people how they got it.”

Business Journal reporter Josh Medore gets his COVID-19 vaccine at the Covelli Centre.

For people like Youngstown resident Mamie Jackson, the clinic at the mall was a step to help protect her community.

“I knew I wanted to get one, just to keep me and my community safe. I waited for someone to have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” she said. “I know people who got sick after the other shots and I didn’t want to get sick.”

And for Paula Kalaman, who attended the Covelli Centre clinic, it was a chance to get back to worry-free work at Hope House Visitation Center, the nonprofit she leads.

“I run a nonprofit and work a lot with little kids. They’re not always vaccinated and they can be their own petri dishes. I know I’ll feel so much better working with my clients now and we’ll feel much more safe,” she said after she got her shot. “I’m guardedly optimistic. I’m not entirely confident that we’re at the end. The virus mutates and the mutations are out there, but if people are getting vaccinated, we have a greater chance of not catching things and getting closer to what normal used to look like.”

Pictured at top: The entrance to the vaccine clinic hosted by Mahoning County Public Health at the Southern Park Mall.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.