Almost exactly one year ago, the cavernous event center between Seattle’s two pro sports stadiums was transformed into a 250-bed military field hospital, complete with surgical rooms, intensive care beds and a radiological unit, an emergency stopgap in case Seattle’s hospitals were overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients in the nation’s first coronavirus hot spot.

On Saturday, the event center, which has changed its name in the intervening pandemic year, will open as a mass vaccination site, capable of vaccinating more people in a day than nearly anywhere else in Washington and, hopefully, hastening the end of the pandemic.

Perhaps, someday soon, the building will go back to hosting boat shows, concerts and art fairs.

But for now, the Lumen Field Event Center will be home to a mass vaccination operation for eligible people starting Saturday, the city of Seattle announced, with plans and supply to vaccinate 2,100 people the first day. (The field hospital shut down last year without serving a single patient.)

Franny Schwarz, project coordinator with the Seattle Center Foundation, discusses the layout of the vaccination site at Lumen Field Event Center, which opens Saturday. The site will be open only a few days a week at first but plans are for it to operate seven days a week as vaccination supply increases. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Franny Schwarz, project coordinator with the Seattle Center Foundation, discusses the layout of the vaccination site at Lumen Field Event Center, which opens Saturday. The site will be open only a few days a week at first but plans are for it to operate seven days a week as vaccination supply increases. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Initially, while vaccine supply remains limited, the site will be open two to three days a week and distribute 4,000 to 5,000 doses of vaccine a week, city officials said. The city of Seattle is running the site, in partnership with Swedish Health Services and First & Goal, the company that oversees the stadium and event center.

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Once vaccine becomes more readily available — and hundreds of millions of doses are expected nationwide in the coming months — officials say the site will be able to vaccinate 22,000 people a day, seven days a week. That’s about half the daily shots that are currently being administered by all sites in Washington combined.

“It will take all of us — from health care providers, to philanthropy, to
community-based organizations, and all levels of government — using all the tools at our disposal to equitably vaccinate our communities,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said.

Vaccinations will, for now, remain limited. To sign up for vaccinations, eligible people (those over 65, teachers and licensed child care providers) can go to seattle.gov/vaccine. There, they can get on a list to receive notifications when appointments become available and then register for an appointment.

“If Dr. [Anthony] Fauci shows up with 20,000 doses, we will work day and night to get those doses in arms,” said Calvin Goings, director of the city’s finance and administrative services department, which led the development of the Lumen Field site. “I’ve been in the public sector for about 30 years; this will be the most important job we ever have.”

Goings described a weekslong sprint to get the site ready to distribute vaccines, so the city would be ready when it had enough doses.

The city found, rented or bought some 15,000 pieces of equipment to turn the event center into a clinic, city officials said. Tables, chairs, cleaning supplies, signs, vests for workers, lanyards, trays, clocks, barriers, stanchions, the list goes on.

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Tablets, in neon-green cases on rolling platforms, offer live translation services in 200 languages. The site has a $25 million budget, which the city expects will be largely reimbursed from federal aid, and the city tentatively plans on it being open for six months, Goings said.

A chart invites those who need interpreter services to point to the language they speak for assistance.
 (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
A chart invites those who need interpreter services to point to the language they speak for assistance. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

“When we first got here, it was 190,000 or so feet of very empty space,” said Julie Matsumoto, a deputy director in the department who helped lead work on the site. “This was a very blank canvas.”

At full capacity, the center will be staffed by about 600 people per shift, four shifts a day, the vast majority of them volunteers.

Swedish, which is coordinating staffing, has a list of 28,000 volunteers to call on, such as nurses, doctors, dentists, pharmacists and other medical providers — both active and retired — who have pledged to administer vaccines. The hospital has used 5,700 volunteers in the last couple of months at the vaccine clinic it staffs at Seattle University.

The process at Lumen Field should be streamlined, said Renee Rassilyer-Bomers, chief quality officer at Swedish, because data-entry systems have improved since vaccination began. Instead of having to register patients in one computer platform and then enter demographic information in another system, for state record-keeping purposes, volunteers only have to enter the information once.

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They’ve timed themselves at Seattle U, where they’re currently able to do about 2,500 vaccinations a day, Rassilyer-Bomers said, and are averaging about four-and-a-half minutes per vaccination.

At Lumen Field, when the site is at maximum capacity, people will be greeted by a maze of stanchions and ropes and 21 zig-zagging aisles, like a big, hopeful airport security line. Volunteers with tablets will check them in.

There will be five lines of vaccine stations in the hangarlike space, including one line reserved for people with disabilities and those who don’t speak English.

Much like an airport security line, the stanchions that will sort lines of vaccine recipients snake along the floor of  the Lumen Field Event Center. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Much like an airport security line, the stanchions that will sort lines of vaccine recipients snake along the floor of the Lumen Field Event Center. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Each of the four main lines will have 30 tables. At each table, one volunteer registering patients and one giving shots. Also: a laptop, a pad of paper, bandages, hand sanitizer, cotton balls, alcohol prep pads, a laminated “help” sign and a little rectangle, marked with blue masking tape, where people place ID for hands-free contact.

At the end of each line of stations is a doctor or nurse practitioner, ready to help if there’s a medical issue or questions.

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Once vaccinated, people are directed to a grid of chairs, chairs spread 6 feet apart, where they can watch jumbo digital clocks blink away the 15 minutes they’re asked to wait at the center in case of any medical problems.

A test run last week, designed to weed out any potential bottlenecks, led organizers to remove rows of white sheets that had been erected to separate the lines of tables. The sheets made it harder for medical providers to see when a vaccinator was holding up a sign to request help.

“One of the things we learned is we have to keep the lines moving, we can’t stall,” Rassilyer-Bomers said. “So pinch points at certain locations require us to be vigilant about making sure we’re moving people through.”

Many of the biggest vaccine sites across the nation have been set up and run by military personnel. Goings said the Lumen Field site would be among the largest civilian-led sites in the nation.

Philip Saunders, a deputy director with the city who runs operations on the site, and a retired Army officer, compared the effort to last year’s military hospital.

“In scale and magnitude, we’re moving like an army would move, with city folks and volunteers and our partners,” Saunders said. “We are taking the same blueprint from the Army and using that concept.”