It’s an hour before doors open in the busy world of Lumen Field Event Center, and the room echoes with sounds of preparation. Click-click-click of syringes being filled. Screeching of chairs moving to socially distant spots. A call for someone, a go for someone else, blasting from handheld radios.
The twice-weekly COVID-19 vaccine clinic, the largest civilian-run mass-vaccination site in the U.S., is a well-choreographed dance. During each shift, between 200 and 300 workers — wearing vests and lanyards of different colors to denote the dozen specific roles they play — move thousands of people through the sprawling location. About half are paid employees, and the rest are volunteers.
The Seattle site has administered more than 50,000 vaccine doses. On this day, officials are expecting to add 1,600 to the total.
Each person vaccinated will cross paths with at least a dozen paid workers and volunteers, however briefly, during their journey from anxious check-in to bandaged-arm exit.
These are the helpers.
Behind a curtain, mother-daughter duo Karen and Sarah Wulff are discussing vaccines. Sarah Wulff is the vaccine preparation lead and trains volunteers, like her mom, in syringe preparation. The Wulffs, who live in Burien, are both nurses; Karen is retired and Sarah previously was a public health nurse in Clallam County.
Sarah Wulff started at the Seattle University clinic and fell in love, she said, and now also helps with the Swedish mobile clinic. Meanwhile, Karen Wulff, who has been away from nursing about a decade but “never completely left it,” joined her daughter after hearing she was eligible to help under Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive order.
“It’s been fun working together. You have someone to talk to about how the day went,” Karen said. “We can talk it over before bringing it up to others, like ‘does this process sound like it might work?’”
In the preparation area, some workers dilute vaccine and others draw it up. Supervisors verify each syringe is correctly loaded, with no bubbles.
Toward the end of the day, preparers slow down. Sometimes they go on hold to count how many people are in line, then figure out how many more they need. Leftover doses usually go to volunteers, but if everyone is already vaccinated, they find anyone available. They gave a vaccine to a janitor, the pair said, another went to a hot dog vendor outside.
“That keeps me coming back,” Karen Wulff said. “I know it’s a quality process.”
Nearby, Evan Tice, 34, is typing on his computer. Tice, who works at Microsoft, thought volunteering would be a good opportunity to get out of the home office and use his tech skills to help. He began at the Seattle U clinic as a data entry volunteer, then moved up the ranks to lead on the team that oversees patient check-in and data-entry systems.
He’s tried to automate common data entry problems that impact what’s shown on computer dashboards. If the software shows someone sat at a vaccination table for two hours, for example, it’s probably a data entry mistake.
He said he’s most enjoyed getting to know people in other industries.
“It’s this weird intersection of all these different professions and backgrounds and skills I’m not typically exposed to,” he said. “We live in a weird time. The fact that we are all here, at Lumen Field, doing this, it’s not normal. But it’s going to get us back to normal.”
“ARE YOU READY TO GET VACCINATED?” Terry McMahan, a customer service floor manager, yells through a megaphone to the line of people waiting.
It’s show time, and McMahan is the emcee. His job is to make sure the process is seamless, and hopefully quick — just a few minutes added to the required 15-minute, post-jab wait. He bounces around in a matching mask and shirt; At one table, he tells a 13-year-old to look at him, not the needle, as the boy was vaccinated.
He started as a volunteer, but now this is his second full-time job, along with being real estate broker. He got involved after his neighbor posted on Instagram that she had gotten a vaccine.
“I knew she wasn’t within any of the categories to get vaccinated,” said McMahan, who lives in Seattle. “So I was out chatting with her one afternoon and asked her, ‘give me the deal, how did you get this vaccination?’ And she told me about the Swedish clinic. In the beginning, I went there, selfishly, to get vaccinated.”
Within 30 minutes, something clicked. He loved everything about the clinic; the jubilation was like nothing he had seen before. He gets chills talking about it.
“If there is a place for me to go after the clinic closes, I’ll go,” he said. “Because it really is something that … I need to see it happen, I need to see it through, see as many people in our city and state get vaccinated.”
At Station No. 5, Taryn Walcott, 41, who is doing vaccination data entry, holds up a pink sign to show she’s ready for the next patient. Walcott recently graduated with a master’s degree in public health, and thought working at the site would be perfect to get more clinical experience.
When someone sits down, Walcott, who lives in Seattle, verifies their information, and starts chatting. That’s intentional — asking about their day and making them laugh helps them relax.
“The best experience is meeting the people, and everyone being high energy and into it,” she said. “It makes the experience really good.”
A woman in her 20s sits down, talks with Walcott and barely seems to notice as vaccinator Karen Ilika, 70, gives her a shot.
Ilika is retired OB-GYN who decided to volunteer after she heard vaccinators were in high demand. She’s worked eight days; the one day she kept track of how many vaccinations she’d administered, the tally came to 75.
During her career as a doctor — her last practice was at Evergreen Health — she helped women through important times in their life, she said. Getting vaccinated, too, is another important time in their lives.
“I am such a proponent of getting everybody vaccinated that I just want to do my part,” she said. “Be part of the solution.”
Most people she’s vaccinating are under 30, and the recipients’ stories often involve family and travel: going to a niece’s graduation, attending a stepsister’s wedding, flying to see a parent. One day, a family of three came in. English wasn’t the parents’ and adult son’s first language, so Ilika spoke to them through an interpreter. After she gave each an injection, they all hugged.
“And then they all yelled ‘FREEDOM!’ as they walked away,” Ilika said.
To the left of the vaccination area is language support, where brown-vested interpreters who, together, speak more than a dozen languages wait for anyone needing translation. The most requested interpreters, language support leads say, are for Spanish, Cantonese, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
Du Ke Ly, 60, a Vietnamese interpreter, expects a busy day. Since he started at the site, he estimates he’s interpreted for about 200 people. The Tacoma resident’s experience as a volunteer interpreter began 30 years ago, in a refugee camp in the Philippines. Born to Chinese parents in Vietnam, he speaks and professionally translates in Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese.
“When I was in the Philippines, someone told me that you don’t have experience or a certification, but you have something that people don’t know at all,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”
His favorite part has been when he first arrived at the site, and heard the organizers say “you are here to save lives.” When everyone was waiting for vaccine appointments, “we said ‘let’s go,’” he added, snapping his fingers. “And it’s here now.”
He’s learned new words to translate, like how to convey the vaccine’s potential side effects. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how much they translate.
“The first day, we had a lady who was about 70, and she spoke Chinese, and she was so concerned about Pfizer,” Ly recalled. “She thought she was coming here for Johnson & Johnson. Even her husband was on the phone telling her ‘I already had my one shot,’ but she didn’t feel comfortable. It didn’t matter how we translated, she said ‘no, I don’t feel safe.’ She just wanted that one.”
For anyone who feels anxious, or needs help finding transportation to a second dose appointment, or worries about being excused from their job, social work volunteer Helen Montgomery is available.
“The thing with any social work job description is the phrase ‘other duties as assigned,’” Montgomery said at the social work table, in the corner of the area where recipients wait 15 minutes after their shot. “It’s kind of whatever they need help with.”
One other duty as assigned: some newly eligible 16- and 17-year- olds have come in without a guardian, said Montgomery, a licensed independent clinical social worker. Volunteers then call a parent or guardian and document telephone consent, which allows the teenagers to get the shot. The first time she was at the site, a 17-year-old walked in alone, after deciding “I’m just ready to do it.”
“I thought that was pretty cool,” she said.
Aida Hidalgo is one of the last workers people see before they leave. With a purple lanyard hanging from her neck, she’s on the wayfinding team, checking people in, doing health screenings, directing foot traffic. A public-health student at the University of Washington, Hidalgo volunteers in several community-health groups geared toward Latinos.
She has been volunteering for about a month, and encouraged her husband to volunteer, too. When he came back from his shift, she said, he told her that he finally understood why she was so excited about being part of the vaccination effort. Now her young son wants to join.
Wayfinders rotate where they’re placed, but she prefers the exit over the start line. At the start, everyone is anxious. On the way out, they’re happy.
“They are just so relaxed and so grateful,” she said. “There’s not a single patient who wasn’t thanking us for being here and making this possible.”