FEMA Mobile Vaccination Unit provides a boost to Florence vaccinations

Nov. 10, 2021 —  A unique partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has brought a FEMA Mobile Vaccination Unit to Florence this week. The drive-through vaccination clinic will be at Florence Events Center, 715 Quince St., from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day through Sunday, Nov. 14, to provide COVID-19 testing and initial and booster doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. The clinic is for ages 12 and up and is provided at no cost. 

The site director is Kevin McVeigh, with OHA, who is working with a team of clinical and nonclinical personnel provided through FEMA.

“This is a FEMA mission assignment. The State of Oregon requested FEMA to provide a mobile vaccination unit (MVU), and we've been working with FEMA since March in Oregon,” he said. 

The first MVU arrived right after Labor Day in September, with the next two arriving Oct. 18. 

“All three were soon operational, and this particular unit started working in Curry County,” McVeigh said. 

The three buses are provided by Yankee Line, based in Boston, Mass., to operate as a mobile pharmacy. Yankee is providing buses throughout the country, including in Colorado, where MVUs are administering 3,000 shots a day. 

“Since September in Oregon, we've surpassed 10,000 total doses. This unit alone has done 2,500 in three weeks,” McVeigh said. “The bus allows us to move from one place to another within a day.

FEMA provides the bus and most of the personnel from all around the country. 

This MVU had stops in Brookings and Port Orford before some of the booster shots were approved for the public. By Oct. 22, “we got extremely busy,” McVeigh said. “First of all, our numbers jumped from about 10 a day up to about 150 a day. We've been about there or higher ever since. Our average daily has been about 150 to 200.”

The busiest day has been 302 people. Some have received booster shots, but some people are getting their initial dose of the vaccine.

The unit next traveled to Pony Village Mall for a drive-through clinic.

“In a week, we did 1,500 vaccines,” McVeigh said. “We're also doing testing. We did 60 tests in Coos Bay because they had an outbreak at the high school.”

At the Florence Events Center, there are several stations for people to drive up to. If they are there for a COVID test, the FEMA personnel provide the RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction) test.

“It’s not the quick test, but the laboratory test, so it takes a few days to get the results,” McVeigh said. “But it's extremely accurate.” 

People who are ready for vaccines will be directed to a different line, where they will chat with the team, show their CDC vaccination card, fill out some paperwork and receive the vaccine. 

“We have all three — Pfizer, Moderna and J&J — and we have the booster,” McVeigh said.

After people get their shot, they will drive to the event center’s upper parking lot for 15 to 30 minutes of observation.

According to McVeigh, FEMA isn’t providing the pediatric vaccines for ages 5 to 11 right now since it would require additional pediatric support and dose amounts. 

“The biggest thing about this is we're completely mobile,” he said. “We've gone from Brookings to here, and after this we're going to move to Molalla in Clackamas County, starting on the 15th.”

OHA contacted the City of Florence about hosting the FEMA MVU at the Florence Events Center.

“The City of Florence is happy to provide the Florence Events Center location for the Mobile Vaccination Unit,” said Assistant City Manager Megan Messmer. “We have been able to provide a great location to our partner agencies throughout the vaccination effort and are happy to see so many people utilizing this service.”

McVeigh complimented the event center as a location, including the use of a generator and the overhang at the front of the building.

“They've been fantastic and a great partner,” he said.

While the clinic is mobile, it won’t be making stops in metropolitan areas. 

“At OHA, we're focused on equity health care,” McVeigh said. “We're trying to reach the underserved populations. The larger cities, Portland and Eugene, are going to have more resources, larger medical hospitals, more clinics. The more rural you get, the harder it gets to access health care. So that's what we're here to specialize in. 

“We're serving everyone, so there's no registration required, and there's no money required.” 

The clinic is mostly providing third doses for Pfizer and Moderna, often called booster doses, which were approved by the CDC this fall.

“We have also been serving a lot of people who are getting their first doses, so that's always encouraged,” McVeigh said. “Some people decided that now's the time after watching the Delta variant, and some people decided that they that they need to get it in order to comply with a job requirement. … It is always encouraging to see someone come through and get that first dose, whether it's Pfizer, Moderna or J&J. I've talked to many who have they finally decided this is the right time. Some of them have lost loved ones. One man in Coos Bay got COVID and he almost died from it, so he was getting his booster. I was happy that we were able to serve him.”

The MVU team works in shifts, each with an assigned task. 

Jackie, who has worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 35 years, was able to volunteer with FEMA this year. 

“When they’re really short on resources, they'll send out a request to different federal agencies. We had to take a bunch of training, and I got qualified early this year, so I volunteered. We had to commit to being away from home for 45 days,” she said.

Jackie is from Kentucky, but other team members are from Mississippi, Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Montana and more. They are from multiple federal agencies and all volunteering to serve with FEMA.

According to McVeigh, “FEMA is supporting the MVUs, but they've run out of regular FEMA volunteers and reservists. And now they've reached out to these other agencies, and it's a good opportunity.”

By working with FEMA, the federal employees are still getting paid, but not doing their regular job. They are limited to about 45 days. 

“Once they're going back, we're going to get a replacement team out here,” McVeigh said. “It's probably going to be the FEMA volunteer or reserve corps. Now that we're through their hurricane season, they're available.” 

For Jackie, she felt the vaccination effort was a worthy cause. It also got her out of her “daily grind” and she got to visit a part of the country she had never seen before. 

“I've always wanted to do this. I've known a lot of people who've done it over the years, and I'm getting close to retirement and wanted to try it out. I did know Oregon was a beautiful state, but not as pretty as it really is. It's just gorgeous. I love it here,” she said. 

Many of the vaccinators have EMT backgrounds, like Rashad, who worked in a hospital before joining the MVU.

Ashley, who was at a big site in Pennsylvania for seven months, started out testing people for COVID before vaccinations were available, and then transitioned into administering doses. 

Besides EMTs, the MVU also staffs a pharmacist and a registered nurse, as well as having a physician on duty. The MVU can also provide interpretation for Spanish speakers.

Keith, the bus driver, said, “This is this is a good format for delivering the shots. … There's a tremendous amount of storage on the bus. We can basically have everything we need with us when we pull onto a site. That's one of the advantages.”

McVeigh worked with an older format of the MVU, which required a trailer and a one-ton truck. The Yankee bus can carry all supplies, with storage underneath and in overhead compartments. Inside is the pharmacy and an office for data entry. The bus even has WIFI and mobile hotspots. 

In the pharmacy area of the bus, two freezers store the Pfizer vaccine at negative 77 degrees Celsius and Moderna at negative 18 degrees Celsius. There is also a medical grade refrigerator, where thawed vaccines can be stored for up to 30 days. 

The bus is designed for use in all weather, and could potentially host the clinic inside. For now, however, the clinic will operate as a drive through. Set up takes about an hour each day, as the site gets collapsed each night. 

“It's very mobile, so having three of these in the state is a good way to do this,” McVeigh said. “You can cover a lot of ground.”

The team has connected with people everywhere they’ve gone. Jackie said people have been so grateful they have brought in doughnuts and other treats.

Donna talked about something special — a small gift given to each member of the team.

“This is an angel of protection given to us by a nurse who came out to vaccinate for one day,” she said. “And that was a big help. You know, when you're doing 200 a day, it helps with our numbers, and it gives some of our people a reprieve. She came by and worked with us one day. The next day she came by and she gave everybody one of these. We've clipped it onto our vests.”

For Jack, who monitored people in the parking lot after they received their dose, “Everyone has been positive and happy that we're here.”

One local retirement home planned to bring 30 people to the clinic on Tuesday, bringing people through in their own bus.

 “We are able to handle a lot in a day,” McVeigh said. “We're not always super fast, but it's the convenience of a car. In and out and you're done. No appointment required.” 

For more local information about the FEMA MVU, visit www.eventcenter.org/general/page/drive-thru-free-covid-testing-vaccinations. To learn more about the MVU, visit covidblog.oregon.gov/mobile-vaccination-unit-gives-people-easy-access-information-and-support.

Individuals can visit https://getvaccinated.oregon.gov/#/ to find locations of vaccinations, including the mobile unit. If they go to the locator map and enter Florence, a list of locations and offerings is provided.

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