Skip to main content

'People see a light at the end of the tunnel': At vaccine sites, the mood is upbeat


play
Show Caption

It's never fun to wait in line. Even when the line ends in Billie Eilish tickets, a black Friday sale or a roller coaster.

But if you lined up recently for one of the three COVID vaccines, now being rolled out at your local hospital, convention center or megachurch, you may have noticed something odd. At least, we did.

No grumbling. No grousing. No sullen looks or downcast faces. 

None of the stuff, in short, that you see in almost every place where people are forced through some kind of bureaucratic maze. Think of the DMV, an unemployment line, an airport check-in.

No, the people we saw Monday at Sayreville's Epic Church International — and others, at other sites that we've heard about anecdotally — were upbeat. Into it. So was the staff.

New Jersey: State to lift capacity for indoor dining, businesses to 50%. Here's when it will happen.

Hip-hop's first lady gets vaccinated: Queen Latifah returns home to Newark to get COVID vaccine

The power of autofill: How tech-savvy volunteers are helping NJ seniors get COVID vaccines

Cops were chatty. Crowds good-natured. Aides smiling and helpful. 

Most of all, there seemed to be an atmosphere of hope. Not just hope that our nightmarish year of COVID may soon be over. But perhaps — and as important — hope that in our chaotic, divisive society, there might still be such a thing as cooperation.

"Everybody has been very upbeat, very excited," said John Wagner, senior pastor of Epic Church, which has partnered with the Middlesex County Health Department to administer the vaccine. "All of a sudden people see a light at the end of the tunnel. And it's not a train coming at them."

In some places, the atmosphere has been positively giddy. Here are some things we've seen and heard:

Moorestown: A woman showed up at the Burlington County vaccine mega-site, at the Moorestown Mall, wearing a floor-length plum gown and sparkly heels, said Linda Voorhis, an editor at The Record. She was celebrating vaccination day, she told the volunteers — the most exciting day of her year. And she had dressed for the occasion.

Edison: One aide, overheard at the RWJ Barnabas Health vaccine mega-site, was channeling Mike Tyson as he administered the shot. "I've seen what COVID can do," Ilana Keller of the Asbury Park Press heard him say. "I want to punch it in the face. So this is how I'm doing that."

Englewood: One 80-year-old gentleman, given his vaccine, took the nurse by the hand, put his other hand on her shoulder, and started to dance. "And you could see the look of joy on his face," said Christine Young, manager of ambulatory care management at Englewood Health. "His first reaction was to dance."

Henrietta N.Y.: People have been deliberately scheduling vaccinations on their birthdays. "Because it's the best present they could get in their whole life," said Molly Lawler, a registered nurse working at the Dome Arena in Monroe County, one of New York's mass distribution sites for the vaccine.

Rochester N.Y.: People were posing for selfies in front of Vinnie Vaccine — a human-size cardboard cutout at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center. That's another vaccination site, about 7 miles from the Dome. "It was really cute," said Toni Beth Weasner, an events planner who got her shot there Thursday. "I made it my profile picture, and I got a lot of thumbs-up for it."

Pittsfield Mass.: Yo-Yo Ma, the famed cellist, gave an impromptu concert at Berkshire Community College's vaccination site, playing "Ave Maria" for his fellow vaccine recipients.

Tears for fears

Along with the smiling, there has been crying. Lots of it.

"I was tearing up," said Tyler Giesa of Collingswood, a special needs teacher. He got his shot Wednesday at the Rowan Medicine Vaccination Center in Stratford, affiliated with Rowan University. "Just as they were prepping me for it, getting the shot ready, the whole past year, all that tension and unknowing, hit me. I was getting choked up all day afterwards."

The emotional rush came moments after the vaccination for Elias Bitar, owner of Norma's Mediterranean Restaurant in Cherry Hill.

He was taking his seat at the Camden County Vaccination Center, Camden County College (Blackwood Campus), to wait the required 15 minutes for any possible side effects. That's when the tears came.

"I was crying in my seat, waiting for the timer to go off," he said. "Just that we were this much closer to being together again. There's a possibility that this nightmare is going to be over." He began to think of all he would now be able to do. "Being close enough in line at the supermarket to talk to someone. Being able to interact with customers for more than two seconds."

Then there was the woman, only 50, who had not been out of her house — not once — since March 15 of last year. 

"She had immunosuppressive diseases," said Lawler, the New York nurse. "She lived alone, and she had all her groceries delivered. She said she had not been out the house literally for a solid year. So this was the best day of her life. When she got the vaccine in her arm, she was bawling her head off."

Who knew there was so much drama in an ordinary medical procedure?

In the 1990s, there was a role-playing game called Changeling, in which the universe was divided between two opposing forces: Glamour and Banality.

Glamour is Angkor Wat, Beyoncé, the Grand Canyon. Banality is a dentist's office, the morning commute, forms in triplicate. 

A vaccine line? The very soul of banality — you'd think. But for some, it's been a thing of wonder, delight, profound emotion. In a word, glamour. Literally, in the case of the woman who dressed up for the occasion. But in any case, a joyful, tearful, memorable event for many. How is that? 

One thing, of course, is the heavy load people bring into these clinics.

The sheer emotional weight of this year, with its isolation, mask wearing and social distancing, can feel overwhelming at the moment when it's suddenly lifted — sent packing, with the prick of a hypodermic needle.

And that's to say nothing of other, more terrible burdens — of loved ones lost, careers and lives shattered. 

"It's a huge, big environment of people being thankful and feeling blessed," Lawler said. "COVID is a [crappy] thing, but if COVID brings people together in this way, and if people could move forward with this sense of purpose outside the clinic area, that would be wonderful."

Goodwill hunting 

There is something else. To some extent, the cheerleader atmosphere at these sites is being deliberately created by the staff. They're being pleasant with a purpose.

There are still a lot of vaccine skeptics out there. And that skepticism will have to be overcome if the U.S. is to reach the 70% to 90% threshold that will constitute herd immunity. It's a real shame that the issue has become politicized, said Bitar, the restaurateur. But there it is.

"Drowning is not a political issue," he said. "There is no party that says drowning doesn't exist, it's the life-preserver lobby that's controlling this, with another party saying it does exist. Everyone agrees that drowning is important, lifeguards are important. The fact that this huge existential threat has been allowed to become the subject of debate is just strange."

That, however, is where we are.

So it's incumbent on all the staffers, all the guards and police, everybody at these sites, to put their best foot forward. Each person who comes back from the clinic and tells her friends and family that the experience was pleasant, the staff friendly and the lines not too terrible is a person who is signing up other people.

"There are a lot of people out there who may not be sure about the vaccine itself," said Les Jones, health services director for Middlesex County.

"That's another message we want to get out there — that the vaccines are safe and effective," he said. "We have three right now, and there are more coming. But people have also had bad experiences in the past, from the way they were vaccinated, or from unpleasant people. We've all experienced that. This is a year where you have to provide a positive experience. That's the only way we can move forward."

At the Epic Church International in Sayreville, the logistics have been worked out with military precision, to make sure the lines keep moving and clients know just where to go.

"I think the idea is to make this as efficient and easy a process as possible," said Chuck Phillips, director of operations for Epic Church. "If you keep people moving, they're OK." Those administering the vaccine, he said, have adequately staffed the areas they need. "At every checkpoint, whether there's a doorway or an entrance to another area, they keep people moving," he said. "It's seamless."

Many of these sites, including Epic, have morning staff huddles, where personnel can learn from the previous day's mistakes. And it has paid off. 

"They've gotten better every time, because they've learned," said Carolyn Merkel, a technology consultant from North Haledon. 

She and her husband got their first shots of the Pfizer vaccine at the Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment Complex in East Rutherford in late February. They got their second dose in March. And in just those few weeks, the staff had learned much. 

Story continues below the gallery

In February, people who had arrived hours early — they had been told to arrive no more than 10 minutes beforehand — were stuck back in the general line. And that swelled the line. "One woman said she had waited 3½ hours outside the facility," Merkel said.

By March, they were doing it differently. "They had timed entry," she said. "They had a National Guard person with a bullhorn, and he would make announcements," she said. Now people were admitted in increments of 30 or 40 at a time. That eased the congestion.

"It was moving pretty quickly," she said. "The people administering everything, the National Guard, were very efficient. Pleasant, but professional."

The people lining up in Englewood, Young has noticed, look out for one another.

"You would think that with everybody wanting the vaccine, they would be cutting in line," she said. "It's not like that. Patients are sticking up for each other, saying, 'This person is next.' Everybody is taking care of everybody else. We're all in this together. We all want to get vaccinated so we can end this pandemic."

When elderly patients were too frail to stand, others in line would hold their places for them while they sat. "You can't stand," they would say. "Take a seat. We'll make sure you're not forgotten."

"It was humanity taking care of humanity," Young said.

All these spontaneous outbreaks of joy, empathy, pain, delight, caring and goodwill take on an additional poignance from the fact that they are — to some extent — anonymous. Unseen.

At the clinics, as everywhere else during the pandemic, faces are kept covered. Expressions are, to a large extent, invisible.

But still, you could tell, said Wagner, the Epic Church pastor.

"I could observe the police officers," he said. "I saw this one gentleman, when he was taking his mask off to do something, he had a big smile on his face."

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1