(TNS) — The plastic wheels of an elderly man's walker scraped across the rough pavement of the parking lot Friday as he made his way across P Street to the main entrance of the Kern County Fairgrounds. He was part of a steady stream of older local residents headed through the front gate to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, which the site began offering on a limited basis earlier in the week to those 65 and over.
Coming in the opposite direction, toward the parking lot, was 68-year-old Cinda Mikols, of Stallion Springs, near Tehachapi, who had just received her inoculation.
"I am so happy," said Mikols, who wore a face mask and clear plastic face shield. As soon as the state announced people 65 and over could be vaccinated, Mikols said, she called the county public health department and was able to get the appointment, something she was eager to do since she has a compromised immune system. From start to finish, the experience "was easy and well-organized," she said. "I give it an A-plus."
Inside the fairgrounds, a major effort is underway to stand up a large-scale immunization clinic that will administer COVID-19 vaccines to tens of thousands of local residents in the coming months. It is a massive and entirely new undertaking for Kern County government but a project county leaders have enthusiastically embraced for its promise of ending the restrictions, economic turmoil and upheaval of everyday life brought on by the pandemic.
"It's probably the most significant thing we've ever done," said Ryan Alsop, the county's chief administrative officer. "And it's all hands on deck right now."
Beyond the colored flags at the entrance and amid empty food huts advertising cold beer and chili dogs, visitors proceed through several stations — a check-in area where paperwork is completed, a brief health assessment and then on to a six-stall vaccination area. Afterward, people are directed to a large building that typically plays host to fair exhibitions and home show exhibitors. Now, it houses rows of blue chairs where those recently vaccinated are asked to sit for 15 minutes so they can be monitored — 30 minutes if the person vaccinated has special health considerations.
In the distance, the rumbling sound of large construction vehicles can be heard. County public works employees were leveling a parking lot to make way for a paved 15-lane drive-through vaccination area. At the same time, county emergency response staff were remotely coordinating operations and holding command meetings. Nearly every county department will play a role in the vaccine operation, Alsop said.
The site is expected to eventually handle 5,000 vaccinations a day between walk-ups and the drive-thru, an effort that will require diverting some 200 to 300 county employees from their regular jobs to the fairgrounds to man the effort. At maximum capacity, the clinic will run for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, potentially for many months.
Despite the size of the task at hand, and challenges like outsized demand for the vaccine and limited availability of it, there was a sense of optimism in the air Friday, from both clinic staff and those arriving to be vaccinated. While nearly every response to the pandemic from government until now has been reactionary, this new effort represents a way forward, to move beyond the disruption of the pandemic, and perhaps eventually back to normal, said Tom Beckett, the county's technology services manager who oversees logistics and on-the-ground operations at the fairgrounds.
"This is the answer to what's been going on," Beckett said.
The site administered vaccines to 330 people Wednesday, its first official day open, and 430 on Thursday, Beckett said. It is currently operating under a "soft launch," and will expand operations in the coming days and weeks as more doses becomes available. Right now appointments are limited but more become available frequently, Beckett said.
More than two dozen county staff members from various departments, including the Public Defender's Office, the Department of Human Services and the County Administrative Office, were working at the fairgrounds. Some, like Devin Brown, the county's chief human resources officer, were assisting with the check-in process for those arriving for vaccinations.
Employees so far have been enthusiastic about helping in the effort, even if it means a drastic change from the work they usually do, said Alsop, the county's chief administrator. As a condition of their employment, all county employees also serve as disaster workers during emergencies, he said.
"It's part of their duty that in times of crisis and emergency, they become disaster services workers. Depending on where they are and who they are, they are simply going to be reporting for duty at the fairgrounds for the next several months," Alsop said. Already, about 100 county staffers went through a brief training Tuesday to work at the vaccination site, he said.
One of them was Tracy Shanahan, a 22-year clerical employee for the county. On Friday, she wore an orange vest over a gray sweater and was stationed outside the observation building, cautioning those entering to beware of a bump in the middle of the doorway.
"I love senior citizens," Shanahan said, adding that she was excited to learn she'd be working at the vaccination site all next week as well.
Normally she books and coordinates travel for the county's behavioral health staff but with no in-person trainings during the pandemic, she was reassigned to do other work. She previously handed out gift cards for people getting tested for the virus and then volunteered to help at the fairgrounds.
The property in south Bakersfield has been invaluable to the county during the pandemic. In addition to the vaccination clinic, there are 15 trailers that house homeless people who need to self-isolate, a building that houses a team of contact tracers, a state-run testing site and a space that can be converted within 48 hours to a field hospital.
The effort will likely cost millions once the numbers are tallied, between infrastructure upgrades, operations and leasing of the site.
The county initially leased the entire fairgrounds for $150,000 a month through the end of the year — the standard cost for anyone wanting to rent out the entire facility — but renegotiated the rate to $30,000 a month from January through the end of June, according to Jim Zervis, the county's chief operations officer.
Alsop said that much of the costs will be covered by federal CARES funding the county already received and more it anticipates receiving under President Joe Biden's pandemic relief programs.
But it's hard to put a value on an effort that could potentially pave the way for a return to normalcy and full reopening of the local economy.
"This is the means to the end. This gets our economy back running, our churches and schools back open," said Matt Constantine, the county's public health director.
In addition to the fairgrounds, there are more than 80 other providers of the vaccine, including pharmacies, hospitals and medical clinics throughout the county.
Once the fairgrounds operation is running smoothly, Beckett said, the county plans to launch several mobile vaccination clinics to deploy to outlying areas.
"This is step one," he said.
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