A View From Inside The Westchester County Center
By Sarah LeBuhn, RN–
As someone who grew up in the rivertowns, I think of the Westchester County Center as the place where, as a teenager, I used to watch our high school basketball team play in the post-season. It was only a year ago, as the specter of COVID was creeping into our collective consciousness, that I was back in the stands, cheering my eldest daughter as she played for the Irvington Bulldogs in the Sectional basketball tournament.
Since then, the County Center has become a very different and special space. It is now a New York State-run mass vaccination site providing the Pfizer vaccine to eligible New Yorkers. What used to be the basketball court is now what amounts to a giant field hospital, with four different “pods,” each containing dozens of individual vaccination rooms, as well as large administrative areas for the state, county and medical personnel to organize the large staff of workers and volunteers who work here from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., seven days a week.
I am back here now as a new nurse. I graduated from nursing school this past December, passed my Boards and received my RN license in January. As I looked for a full-time nursing position, I wanted to help out in any way I could. I was excited to begin volunteering here in early February, giving vaccinations as a real nurse! Initially, it was overwhelming to see the sheer number of people, both paid and volunteer, needed to manage the thousands of people coming through the doors each day—and equally overwhelming to see them in long lines, desperate to get their vaccine at this critical point of the pandemic, as variants spread and deaths and hospitalizations soared.
Outside the building, members of the National Guard make sure the line is orderly and that people are socially distanced; state and county officials are inside managing operations, safety and logistics; pharmacists are working to keep track of when this fragile vaccine needs to be thawed, then diluted, and when it is no longer viable. The Westchester Medical Center staffers are not only giving vaccines but also organizing this effort, managing the administrative tasks of recording all of the pertinent information in a database. It is a mind-boggling and complex task to make this site function as it does. And yet it more than functions. It hums like a beautifully engineered machine, because that is exactly what it is.
What is most amazing about this facility, and the approximately 2,500 vaccines it administers each day, is the people who make it all work. It is unlike anything I have ever encountered. There is joy in this place, pure and simple. Joy not only for those making it possible to give the vaccines, but also for those receiving them. It is hard to compare a time when there has been this kind of large-volume contact between medical personnel and people who are not sick.
In the early days, it was mostly elderly people who were being vaccinated, as they were the highest priority. Day after day I have had people cycling through my little room repeating the same thing: “I just want to hug my grandchildren.” And many of them simply wanted to talk to me—to tell me about their families, their lives, the past year and how hard it had been for them. It is clear what this pandemic, and the isolation from friends and family it has brought, has cost this generation. Yet here was a vaccine that could change all that! The effect it had on all of us was sheer exuberance. Hope was on the way, and its promise suffused this space, to the point of being almost palpable.
There are many professional roles to play to keep this site functioning, but the number of local volunteers who are pitching in to help has been staggering. Every day, dozens of volunteers from our local communities don their blue aprons, grab a nametag and help direct, reassure, support and offer a kind word to the thousands of people coming for their much sought-after appointments. People from all over Westchester donate their time and their good will to connect with other community members. Word of mouth has spread, so now it is hard to even find an open opportunity to volunteer, but it does feel wonderful to see this work in action, especially after our year of being so separated from one another. It is a singular experience to bear witness, during this immeasurably difficult year, to how this pandemic will end, and how good it feels to be a part of it.
My husband, who has been working from home since last March, began volunteering after hearing from me what a wonderful experience it was. He comes home from his shifts excited to share his stories of the day. I realize that, now that he is no longer commuting, working in an office or going to church, how very cut off he has been from other people! We humans are social beings, and it isn’t normal for us to be alone in front of our computer screens all day. We need to connect with other people, laugh, joke, and feel like we are a part of something. And this too is something the County Center has offered so many volunteers during these past few months. Simple connectedness, along with the satisfaction of a doing some good.
The kindness I have received, as someone who administers the vaccine, from those getting their shot is unforgettable. Some people have cried, some have brought me M&Ms and homemade brownies; some have hugged me, some have offered to buy the entire facility lunch. And everyone repeats the same mantra: “Thank you for what you do….Thank you for making this possible….This place is amazing! It’s so well-run. I can’t believe I didn’t have to wait!” I had no idea it would be this easy.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Despite the snowstorms and subsequent long lines that made meeting the demand for vaccines more difficult in January and February, things feel different now at the County Center. People are now moving from registration to vaccination, regardless of time of day, swiftly and always with a kind “Be well!” from the staff helping them navigate the maze of this space. The County Center is administering 2,500 vaccinations a day, and that number is expected only to increase in the coming weeks. The huge scoreboard that used to tally the points in basketball games now keeps track of the total number of vaccines given. We are over 134,000 now, with that number climbing every day. And as the number of vaccinated people in New York and across the United States increases, this offers us all a reason to celebrate.
So, come and share in the miracle. You can do your part by getting any vaccine offered to you as soon as you are eligible. Keep wearing your masks and social distancing, which will be easier with warmer weather on the horizon. Come see for yourself what it looks like when we combine science, ingenuity and tireless effort. I think you too will be proud of what our state has worked to create for its citizens. And every single person, staff, volunteer or client, who enters the County Center, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, has the same goal in mind: to beat this pandemic, so that we can be together as a community again. I am incredibly proud to play a small part in this effort to put all of our “new normal” lives back together.