Behind the scenes

PBMC, WCGH open two COVID-19 vaccination clinics in eight days

By Arthur Durity | Feb 25, 2021
Photo by: Arthur Durity WCGH Director of Practice Management Dawn Place, front center, and her team of non-clinical staff, screen patients for COVID-19 symptoms guide them through the registration process at the  vaccination clinics held in the former MBNA complex in Belfast.

When Steven Garhartt walked into the lobby of building six in the former MBNA complex in Belfast, he stood in awe.

But it wasn’t the architecture, the massive skylight or the tile floors that impressed him. Garhartt, the pharmacy operations manager at Pen Bay Medical Center, entered the building with one goal. He was looking for a location to establish a MaineHealth COVID-19 vaccine clinic. He didn’t have a lot of time. The clinic was scheduled to open in just eight days.

“The interior was laid out perfectly for a high-volume COVID-19 vaccine clinic,” said Garhartt. “The challenge at that point was going to be getting a clinic up and running to handle as many as 750 people a day.”

The success of Garhartt and his team to do just that is one of the local success stories in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The clinic in Belfast opened on time Jan. 27 to vaccinate more than 200 residents, many of whom praised how well the clinic was run. A second clinic set up by Garhartt’s team in the Samoset Resort in Rockport just a few days later has earned similar praise.

Garhartt said his team, which included both clinical and non-clinical staff, was able to create such patient-friendly clinics so quickly by drawing on their experience setting up drive-thru flu clinics in the fall and the employee COVID-19 vaccine clinics earlier this winter.

Dr. Mark Fourre, the president of Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital, echoed Garhartt’s praise of those running the clinics in Belfast and Rockport.

“Certainly this shows how committed both hospitals are to getting vaccine into the arms of everyone who wants to be vaccinated,” said Fourre, who described the clinics as an “all hands on deck” operation.

“I want to draw special attention to all the non-clinical staff who help make these clinics run so smoothly,” Fourre said.

“We have accountants working in registration, maintenance staff screening patients at the clinic entrance and members of the executive team pushing patients who are in wheelchairs. They aren’t normally on the so-called ‘front lines’ of health care but have joined us there in this effort.

"In fact, some of them have never had direct contact with a patient until now. However, they have all rolled up their sleeves to do what is necessary for the benefit of our community. We simply could not hold these clinics without them.”

To date, the Belfast and Rockport clinics have combined to administer more than 5,500 in their first three weeks of operation. Following state guidelines, the clinics have vaccinated residents 70 years of age and older and health care workers, including first responders.

Vaccinations are by appointment only. To sign-up, go to mainehealth.org/vaccine or call 1-877-780-7545. Once registration is complete, you will receive a call in the order they were received, when there are vaccines available.

MaineHealth asks that people not call their local health care providers, as they are not able to make appointments.

“I was so pleased to see how easy they made it for us to get through the paperwork and to a nurse who gave me my shot,” said Patricia Kieft, 76, a Northport resident who received her vaccine at the Belfast clinic.

“Everybody was so sweet. They knew we were nervous and they were just so reassuring. I talked to other people who went to the clinic that day and they had the same reaction.

When it came to the shot itself? “It didn’t hurt, just a little prick like any other shot,” Kieft said.

Charles Mamane, 74, a Camden resident who received his vaccination at the Rockport clinic, said he was impressed how staff made it easy to navigate the clinic, which left him feeling “safe and cared for. From the moment we entered the facility we were greeted by staff who guided us through the process. Everybody was so cheerful, and that put me at ease.”

“The enthusiasm of the people who came in to be vaccinated was inspiring,” said Denise Needham, PharmD, the senior director of operations at Waldo County General Hospital tasked with setting up both clinics. “It really felt like a celebration, and you could see and sense that people, even strangers, were bonding over this experience.”

Needham said the positive reactions from patients came not by chance but through the hard work of a dedicated team of people from a cross-section of departments at both hospitals.

These included Garhartt, Dawn Place, the director of practice management at Waldo County, and Registered Nurse Lori Barter, a clinical manager of the physician practices at Pen Bay, as well as members of the information technology team. Dr. Cheryl Liechty, who oversees the overall COVID-19 response for both locations, and Dr. Mark Eggena, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Pen Bay, provided important guidance.

This team, in a slightly different form, actually formed months earlier as both hospitals prepared to launch drive-thru flu clinics for the public in the early fall of last year. The drive-thru model was meant to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission by administering the vaccines outside of the hospital.

The team was called back into service once it became apparent that a COVID-19 vaccine was about to be approved. At that time, they were focused on creating clinics to give the new vaccine to employees at Pen Bay and Waldo County, so they would be able to continue caring for the community.

“In a sense, both of these events — the drive-thru flu clinics and the employee COVID-19 clinics — were dry runs to what we’re doing now,” said Garhartt. The key difference, he said, is the scale of the current vaccination campaign.

“For example, we learned how to create work flows, schedule staff and patients, and how to manage traffic entering and existing the site.”

The difference between those earlier efforts and the COVID-19 clinics is scale, said Barter, who developed the scheduling system for both the Belfast and Rockport clinics. “This scale is huge,” Barter said.

Garhartt concurred and noted that the flu clinics vaccinated just under 6,000 people over several months of clinics. “Compare that to the COVID-19 clinics, where in Belfast and Rockport we have vaccinated nearly 6,000 people in the first three weeks.”

The goal for the clinics is to vaccinate everyone who wants to be vaccinated, Garhartt said. That is likely to be a significant number, if early demand is an indicator. Knox and Waldo counties have a combined population of 65,000 people and epidemiologists say 70% or more of them — that’s 52,000 people — will need to be vaccinated before herd immunity is achieved.

“Managing clinics for such a large number of people presented many challenges,” said Place. Place brought an expertise in what hospitals call ambulatory settings — that is, settings where patients have office visits or day surgery and then leave the office after receiving care.

“We had two focuses,” said Garhartt. “We didn’t want people to feel lost and not know where they were going,” Garhartt said. “We didn’t want them to have to wait around.”

With that in mind, Place and her team designed a flow that aimed to keep patients moving through the clinic smoothly. They broke down the process into stages — parking, screening, registration, getting the shot, the post-shot observation period, making an appointment for a second shot — and placed helpful staff along the way.

They also managed the distance between each stage. For example, increasing the distance between the registration table and the vaccination station would even out the flow of patient traffic. However, adding steps would not be ideal for those patients who might move at a slower pace because of age or medical condition.

“It was a balancing act,” Place said. “But based on patient feedback, I think we got it right.”

While Place’s team focused on setting up the Belfast clinic, much of their work transferred easily to clinic setup at the Samoset Resort in Rockport. However, the Samoset location did present one unique challenge: The distance between the entrance and the vaccination site was longer than at the Belfast clinic. To address that, the team brought in wheelchairs for patients with mobility challenges, and clinic staff pushed them to their appointment.

Cindy Wade, currently the chief operating officer for Pen Bay, Waldo County and LincolnHealth, was among those who helped patients get to their COVID-19 vaccine appointment. MaineHealth recently tapped Wade, a former Navy nurse, to take over as president of LincolnHealth at the end of March.

“I’ve been in health care for a long time,” Wade said. “Helping people get to their vaccine appointment is one of the most memorable things I’ve experienced.”

Fortunately, what could have been the biggest challenge at both clinics tuned into their strongest asset. Physicians, nurses and other clinical and non-clinical staff from Pen Bay and Waldo County have eagerly raised their hands to work at the vaccine clinics. Coordinating this effort is Lisa Sirois, director of central staffing for Pen Bay and Waldo County, with the assistance staffing coordinators Heather Rogers and Ruth Littlefield.

Nurses especially have worked at the clinics in addition to their regular duties back in the hospitals, although everyone has risen to needs of the moment, said Littlefield. “The enthusiasm of everyone to participate has been unbelievable,” she said.

“We all recognize this as a historic moment and we all want to be a part of helping our community through it.”

Moreover, volunteers from the community have stepped up to serve important roles. Among them is Sara Salley, a Liberty resident who has screened patients for COVID-19 symptoms at the entrance to the Belfast clinic.

“I sensed relief and hope in patients as they came in,” Salley said. “People seemed relieved to begin the process of being safe out in the world again. My mother, who is 87, got her vaccine earlier in the week and told me how impressed she was with how easy they made it for her to get her shot.”

Needham said the efforts of volunteers and staff alike have inspired her during what she and others acknowledged as a historic vaccination campaign that compares to the polio vaccine campaign of the 1950s and 1960s.

“I’m not too proud to admit that I was moved to tears when we first opened each of the clinics,” Needham said.

“Our local system team members have more than willingly answered the bell to their part to make our communities safer for everyone. There is no adequate way to describe their heroic efforts. I get choked up just about having the honor of directly witnessing their efforts in this defining moment of history.”

Arthur Durity is a communications manager in the Communications and Public Affairs office at Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital. A former newspaper journalist, he has worked for the New London Day, New Britain Herald and Meriden Record-Journal.

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