Minute Maid Park buzzed with energy on Saturday, with residents waiting in lines and pushing their elderly loved ones in wheelchairs into the stadium. But the main attraction wasn’t baseball — it was COVID-19 vaccines.
“I hope this doesn’t hurt too badly,” Stan Shniderson, 83, said to Mayor Sylvester Turner moments before getting his vaccine.
“Oh, it doesn’t hurt at all!” assured Turner, who received his vaccine last week.
The city partnered with the Astros organization to transform the ballpark into a site to provide the Moderna vaccine to up to 3,600 health care workers, residents ages 65 and older, and patients with underlying medical conditions. Vaccine distribution was moved from the Bayou City Event Center, which was needed for a different event, giving the city a sneak peek at how the stadium would operate as a mega-site when it officially opens in the coming week.
Divided into three sections, the stadium’s lower level was reserved for the elderly and those with mobility challenges. Volunteers first led participants to a section to complete additional paperwork for the vaccine, then to a waiting area and the official vaccination stations, and finally, an observation area, where health workers watched for any adverse or allergic reactions at least 15 minutes.
According to many who were inoculated, the process was straightforward, almost painless, and a hopeful step toward normalcy.
“It’s like the flu shot,” said Rod Miller, who noted he had a medical condition and described himself as middle-aged. “It’s something you have to do. It’s not only a civic duty. It’s to protect family and friends — It’s the responsible thing to do.”
Recent Prairie View A&M University graduate Gwendolyn McAfee, 22, said with her disdain for needles and the uncertainty about the vaccine effects, she was uneasy. But while sitting in the observation area, unscathed, McAfee said she was happy she went through with it.
“A lot of people my age aren’t fond of the vaccine … but I figured I could be an example to my peers, especially in the age of social media. It’s the best way to stay safe,” McAfee said.
Shniderson, whose wife died in July, said it’s been difficult staying home alone during the pandemic. The vaccine could offer some semblance of security as he tries to safely gather with a few friends and to run errands as COVID lingers.
Still, “there’s a lot of ‘if’s’ and ‘but’s’ about this. I don’t know whether it’s going to work or not,” said Schniderson, who lived through the polio epidemic in Texas in the early 1950s, but he’s hopeful.
Turner, who toured the site, greeting residents with fist and elbow bumps and encouraging volunteers and essential workers, said Minute Maid Park is the largest vaccination site that the city has hosted so far — inoculating 350 people an hour and tripling the total amount of people vaccinated last Saturday at the Bayou City Event Center.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who attended an afternoon press conference at the ballpark, said it’s also the first model of a mega-site in the country, which could serve as an example for other major cities also looking to establish similar sites.
The outcome, however, was more than Turner and health officials had originally expected.
The city had around 1,000 doses of the vaccine as of Thursday and decided to scale back vaccinations for the weekend when a delivery was not received, but by Friday morning, the city unexpectedly received an additional 2,600 vaccines, Turner said. The city and the Houston Health Department quickly switched gears, scheduling appointments with people who had pre-registered to ensure that the vaccine was distributed and not sitting, wasted on shelves. They also opened up registration, receiving an additional 1,000 applicants within 20 minutes, Turner said.
Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations, said the stadium had already begun preparing earlier in the week and officials were confident in the infrastructure.
“It was more about the logistical flow” and ensuring that there was enough physical space within the building to allow for social distancing in waiting areas and immunization pods, Braithwaite said.
As a result of the early shipment, Lesley Fox, 56, of Harris County, said her vaccine appointment — originally scheduled for late January — was rescheduled for Saturday morning. She was impressed by the organization of the process and the pleasantness of many of the volunteers and essential workers in the stadium that day, said Fox, donning a Buc-ee’s mask.
“I thought it was going to be chaos,” said Fox, who volunteers for the Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show and works for United Airlines. She’s eager to return to a normal life, she said.
“I want to see my mom. I’m in front of people, and I don’t want to stop that,” Fox said. “I want to get back to normalcy, and if this is going to help, so be it.”
Despite Saturday’s success at the site, Turner said he and city health officials are not yet satisfied with the level of vaccine distributions.
“We’re hoping things ramp up very quickly,” he said, adding that “certainty about when vaccines arrive and how much” can be expected will help the city better meet the demand.
Houston Health Department Director Stephen L. Williams added that the city plans to operate at least two mega vaccination sites — one on the north side and one in the south side of Houston. The city will also create a mobile site that will distribute vaccinations to city neighborhoods and to collaborate with health centers and pharmacies to ensure coverage around the city. Williams added that how many people are vaccinated will depend on how many vaccines are delivered and that a portion of the next shipment of vaccines will be prioritized for nursing homes.
“It’ll get more reliable as time goes on and as the vaccine becomes more available,” Williams said.
Though vaccine distribution is increasing, Williams and Turner advised residents to be vigilant about wearing masks, social distancing and hygiene.
“We’re still combating the virus. There’s still a lot of community spread,” Turner said. “And I want to emphasize the importance of testing, testing, testing.”
Mega vaccine site launches at Minute Maid Park – Houston Chronicle