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NFL Stadium Near Phoenix Is Now A Mass Vaccination Site

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The NFL stadium just outside of Phoenix is now one of the first mass vaccination sites in the country. It operates around the clock, and authorities say they'll soon be inoculating 6,000 people a day. From member station KJZZ, Katherine Davis-Young went to see how operations are going.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: I'm standing outside State Farm Stadium, which is home to the Arizona Cardinals. And on a game day in a normal season, these big parking lots outside are where you would see fans and tailgaters. But that's not the scene here at all today. It's long lines of hundreds of cars waiting to drive through tents. All these people are here to get their coronavirus vaccine.

CHARLIE JANNETTO: It took about an hour. It was surprisingly well organized, though.

DAVIS-YOUNG: High school math teacher Charlie Jannetto was one of the first to get a shot here when it opened this week for prioritized groups. He pulled up for his appointment after midnight Tuesday, got the shot through the driver's side window, stuck around for 15 minutes of observation, then drove off.

JANNETTO: I've never done a late-night vaccine in a - in the parking lot of a stadium before.

DAVIS-YOUNG: And most of us haven't.

JENNIFER NUZZO: We have never attempted to vaccinate the U.S. at the scale that we are now asking states to do.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security is one of the authors of a recent study looking at how prepared local public health departments are for mass vaccinations.

NUZZO: When asked - now, if you had to do this for the majority of your population in, you know, a short period of time, could you? - none of them really were at that point.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Nuzzo says it's not just a matter of directing traffic for thousands of cars. It's finding enough qualified staff to give the shots, managing appointment bookings, not to mention reminding everyone they'll need to go through this process again in a few weeks for a second dose. Those are major obstacles.

But Will Humble, former director of Arizona's health department, says big vaccine drive-throughs are one of the only good options right now, since these first approved vaccines are shipped in huge quantities that have to be kept cold and used quickly once opened.

WILL HUMBLE: You're boxed in to using approaches that you don't want to use because you're stuck with the cold chain requirements that the FDA authorized.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Arizona, like most states, started preparing for the vaccine months ago. Even so, there have been setbacks. Online systems for required vaccination appointments have been overwhelmed, and shots haven't gone out as fast as the state hoped. So far, Arizona's administered only about a third of the doses it's received.

HUMBLE: It hasn't been optimal, but has been better than nothing.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Governor Doug Ducey is anxious to accelerate the process. His health department quickly organized the stadium site with the help of a million-dollar private grant and volunteers. And this week, he encouraged counties to expand eligibility to anyone 75 or older, in addition to teachers and law enforcement. But Ducey has enacted few policies to mitigate Arizona's severe outbreak. And Humble worries, even with Arizona's big vaccine sites fully booked, it will be months before the state can outpace the virus.

HUMBLE: The governor and the health director are just banking on vaccinating our way out of this. But in the meantime, there's just going to be a lot of dead bodies because those are the people that became infected.

DAVIS-YOUNG: State leadership defends their focus on vaccines. Health Department director Dr. Cara Christ says she hopes the 24/7 site will be the first of many in Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARA CHRIST: This sets the stage for later this year when the challenge will be to get millions vaccinated to build herd immunity needed to defeat COVID-19.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Jennifer Nuzzo with Johns Hopkins says each new mass vaccination effort will bring more logistical challenges.

NUZZO: Thinking about doing this at the scale that we are attempting is extraordinary.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Even with setbacks, she says, getting these sites running in Arizona and across the country is a significant step.

For NPR News, I'm Katherine Davis-Young in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.