A vaccine clinic in a Detroit parking garage? It was his idea, and it works.

March 25, 2021, 11:27 PM by  Nancy Derringer

Drive-through service for a lifesaving shot. (Photo: Nancy Derringer)

Vaccine availability is growing by the day, vaccine selfies are proliferating everywhere, and even the jargon and slang is taking hold – gotten your Fauci ouchie yet? – so let’s get this out of the way before it’s too late: If you have been vaccinated, or plan to be vaccinated, through the city of Detroit, you are a lucky individual.

While your grandparents wail about being unable to navigate swamped call centers or incomprehensible, buggy websites, those who call 313-230-0505 are likely to have their calls answered promptly, by a human being. Appointments are usually available within a few days. And once you arrive at the vaccination site, the TCF Center parking structure, everything goes swimmingly.

Hakim Berry: "We were expecting a spike." (Photo: City of Detroit)

The line is moving. The hassle is minimal: First stop, show your ID and appointment confirmation. Second stop, get a clipboard with a simple form to complete and sign. Third stop is the nurse with the needle. Pull forward, wait 15 minutes to make sure you don’t have an allergic reaction, then follow the signs to the exits. To date, 178,276 shots have been delivered in this way.

Much of this is the work of Hakim Berry, the city’s chief operating officer, who was charged with putting together Detroit’s answer to the wave of Covid-19 that sucker-punched the city a year ago. Working with the resources at hand, he first helped stage the drive-through testing site at the abandoned state fairgrounds, then, when cold weather set in, smoothly pivoted to the indoor Joseph Walker Williams Community Center.

As vaccines received emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, shots in arms were a new challenge. Berry said planning started for mass vaccinations before Thanksgiving.

“There were so many unknowns,” he said. “The guidance was changing every week, sometimes every day. We don't even know all the particulars. Where could we do this? We were experiencing a spike in Covid cases and everyone was a little bit afraid of a spreader event. And after I had done a few clinics with Meijer, Kroger, with drive-through flu shots, I knew it was possible to get a shot while you're sitting in a car.”

Belle Isle was considered and rejected – “Who wants to be outside, off the Detroit River, in January?” Berry asked. The need for a site that could be both heated and car-accommodating led them to the TCF Center. It hosts an auto show, after all, but for cars that are driven in and parked, not hundreds passing through for hours on end, some caked with melting snow that has no place to drain. The next step was a garage, and several were considered before the city returned to the TCF Center, this time to the parking structure. It was chosen for its carbon monoxide monitors, which trigger exhaust fans if the air becomes unsafe to breathe.

How to repurpose a space

From there, it was a matter of “taking a concept from a whiteboard and letting people go to town on it.” Giant heaters were brought in for the staff’s comfort. Public Works came up with extensive signage. Nurses trundle supplies from car to car on rolling carts. Digital clocks were installed in the waiting area, so you know exactly when it’s safe to leave. Some solutions are amusingly low-tech; the first check-in staffer sticks a neon-colored Post-it note on your windshield, so the people waving you into either the first-shot or the second-shot line can tell at a glance which one you should be in.

“It was complicated, and we tweaked it,” Berry said, as the team worked toward a promise that “the only memory you will have will be your fear of a needle.” And even that is nearly painless.

What is all this costing? Hard to say to the penny. Some of it was in-kind services; the Quicken organization donated its call-center services early in the pandemic and has helped set up and run the one handling vaccinations appointments. And things keep changing, Berry said.

For example, pharmacists were hired to do the “draws,” the actual filling of each syringe. Each vial is supposed to contain five doses, but a skilled pharmacist can usually get a sixth, and “at some point you run out of material and still have vaccines left. So we quickly learned we have to buy extra syringes and band-aids, and the alcohol swabs and all those little things that go with it.”

Ballpark? About $25 million, Berry said, which the city is fronting, with the expectation of being paid back by the federal government. The first $18 million reimbursement has already arrived.

It’s easy to forget, because few of us have lived through a global pandemic of this size, that much of what we’ve seen in the past year is public-health practice that did not have to be made from scratch. Smart people have figured this out before, and anyone who’s seen “Contagion” probably remembers that vaccines were dispensed in stadiums in the movie, just as they are today at Ford Field.

However, “it took us time to understand what we were faced with,” Berry said. “I looked at it as, we have an enemy and we don't know enough about it. So what can we do to protect ourselves? It was all standard things: Wash your hands. Cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze. Give yourself some social distance, wear a mask, you know, just basic principles that we had to re-educate ourselves about.”

As the final barrier to vaccination falls in the coming days, Berry expects the TCF Center to be operating for several more months. Final words of advice: “Just get it. If we continue on this trajectory, we could be out of this by summertime.”

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