Stadium vaccine effort serves 17K in first week

A joint effort at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium yielded 17,250 vaccinations in its first week, as officials aim to ramp up to 20,000 weekly doses through mid-May.

The massive endeavor is part of an ongoing collaboration between Alachua County Department of Health, which supplies the vaccines, and UF Health, which supplies personnel and space.

“We have been coordinating with the Alachua County Department of Health [ACDOH] since the very beginning, because we can provide the expertise of our staff and the student personnel to help man both the testing and vaccination sites,” said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, a public health specialist who leads the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect initiative. “The only way to get it out in the community is to have enough volunteers to keep up the pace.”

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The stadium effort kicked off on April 5, the first day any Floridian age 16 and older could access a vaccine. UF Health staff, as well as retired doctors and nurses, administered the shots, while pharmacy college students loaded the doses and community volunteers handled paperwork.

More than 5,200 UF students and local residents received a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 that first day, creating a steady flow of people at the Champion’s Club of the stadium’s SkyBox Tower.

“We are very happy with the student response,” Lauzardo said. “The vast majority take it seriously and realize their responsibility not only to protect themselves but also protecting others from transmission.”

The vaccination rate at the stadium slowed after the first day, but organizers worked to refine and expand the process so that by Friday, April 9, they were processing 600 people an hour. With over 50 stations operating, wait time is minimal. And due to the very low risk of reaction, Lauzardo said, the 15-minute wait time after receiving vaccine is optional.

As of the beginning of April, more than 80,000 people in Alachua County had received at least one vaccine shot, including more than two-thirds of local seniors, according to health department officials.

“When you think about it, all the vaccinating we’ve done up to this point has been for people who are more vulnerable and at-risk,” Lauzardo said. “That’s the right thing to do, but you can’t stay there.”

With hospitalizations and deaths down, Lauzardo said the time is right to turn attention to the wider community.

“Not only are we having these mass vaccination events here in support of the ACDOH’s other sites, both groups are also reaching out into the community for people that do not have the means to come to the events,” he said. “The DOH has set up vaccinations at the MLK Center and UF Health is going to the churches and rural communities.”

Lauzardo said officials are also working with community partners to distribute sound information aimed at overcoming vaccine hesitancy. He said the idea is for the information to come from a source people trust.

“People tend to trust their neighbors more than some government or medical official,” Lauzardo said.

UF students and staff can register for a vaccine appointment through the UF portal, while other Alachua County residents should use the health department website.

Lauzardo said he expects the stadium effort to be a success: “I believe that by the time we finish this six-week mass vaccination push that 80 percent of the students here will be vaccinated.”

Staff prepping vaccine doses

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