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‘Keep the shelves empty:’ Salisbury VA vaccinates 500 veterans on Saturday

SALISBURY — There’s no organization Jerry Archable trusted more to give him the COVID-19 vaccine than the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

That’s why the Army veteran was one of hundreds to visit the gymnasium of the W.G. Bill Hefner VA Medical Center on Saturday to receive his first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

“I was watching the crowds and all, and I decided that I wanted to be vaccinated through a military facility,” said Archable, who spent a year stationed in Vietnam. “I feel more comfortable here.”

Using military-like precision and efficiency, the VA Medical Center on Saturday administered roughly 500 vaccines to military veterans aged 65 and older or those who have high-risk conditions as defined by the Center for Disease Control.

“I was very pleased with the organization and service,”said Archable, who reported that the process to get his vaccine only took about 30 minutes.

The medical center plans on administering another 500 vaccines on Sunday to bring the mass vaccination event’s total to around 1,000 people in two days. Three weeks from now, the VA Medical Center will host another mass vaccination clinic to give the same 1,000 veterans their second doses.

The effort to coordinate the mass vaccination clinic started just 10 days ago, when Salisbury VA Chief of Staff Randall Gehle received word that the medical center would have access to 1,000 doses — if they could administer them in a timely fashion.

The VA Medical Center was eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccines because it has the necessary facilities to store them.

“Pfizer has strict rules on how you can mix it and give it,” Gehle said. “You have to have a high-quality hood and you have to have a negative 70 degrees deep freezer.”

Sheree Tanner and Toviea Grier prepare to administer COVID-19 vaccine to a veteran. Ben Stansell/Salisbury Post

After being notified of the incoming supply, the medical center mobilized quickly. Within 24 hours, Gehle said the VA had the clinic completely staffed. Workers began calling veterans to arrange appointments. 

“We were booked 70% in just three days,” Gehle said. “It was awesome to have cooperation from the veterans.” 

By operating on an appointment-only basis, the medical center kept wait times low and sometimes had veterans vaccinated before their appointments time even started.

All of the 40 nurses and office assistants who helped the clinic run smoothly volunteered to be there, including whole health nurse Manager Melissa Yost.

“The entire VA community has really come together,” said Yost, who was overwhelmed with emotion when talking about what the event meant to her. “People came out of the woodwork to volunteer for this. Everyone here is a volunteer. Most of these folks here don’t work weekends. They are doing this because they are committed to our mission, they’re doing this because they’re committed to our veterans and they’re doing this because they’re committed to our community at large.”

Yost said the mass vaccination clinic allowed the staff members to help veterans, but also to reconnect with them.

“Although we’ve had great technology to continue that care, we’ve missed that face-to-face interaction,” Yost said. “What I’m seeing here in this clinic is joy and gratitude. It’s coming from both sides. Not just the veterans, but the staff. Everyone is so excited to see each other, have that type of connection again and to welcome our veterans back.”

The mass vaccination clinic on Saturday and today was intended to be for veterans age 75 or older, but it was extended later in the week to those over 65 and those with high-risk conditions.

Still, Gehle said that most of the veterans vaccinated on Saturday were in the 75 and older category. Of the 15,000 veterans aged 75 and up in the Salisbury VA’s system, Gehle said that 5,000 have been vaccinated by the medical center. That number will be closer to 6,000 after Sunday.

Charles Prince, an Army veteran who was vaccinated on Saturday, said he had no hesitation about getting the vaccine. Prince said he encourages others to do the same, even if they have trepidations.

“If you’re unsure, be unsure in the right direction and get the shot,” Prince said.

Gehle said while most veterans they’ve reached out to in order to schedule appointments have been cooperative, some say they don’t want to get vaccinated.

The mass vaccination event won’t be the last held at the Salisbury VA Medical Center, Gehle said.

We’re going to keep the shelves empty of vaccines because it doesn’t do any good on our shelves,” Gehle said. “We’re going to get the vaccine into our veterans’ arms and start protecting them from COVID-19.”

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