‘Whatever we need to do'

Lisa LaBerge and Mark Roberts
Two patients at the Essex Fairgrounds vaccine clinic. The older woman on the left is making two peace signs with her hands. The gentleman sitting behind her on the right is holding up a thumbs up.

It was late in the afternoon when Lisa LaBerge and Mark Roberts rushed through the doors of the Champlain Valley Expo, nervous that they had missed their COVID-19 vaccine appointments. LaBerge had been held up at work, and after months of anticipation, had somehow found herself running late, growing so agitated on the drive that she had to resist the temptation to run from the car to the building. (Roberts had recently had shoulder surgery, so that didn’t seem like a good idea.)

For the couple, the long-awaited vaccination milestone meant the countdown to see their grandchildren had begun. Like so many others, they had isolated and distanced themselves from others during the pandemic, relegated to what they dubbed “internet hugs” with their grandchildren.

What the couple didn’t know that spring day was that their arrival marked a significant milestone for the many hundreds of people who worked at the site as well. Their vaccinations would break the record for number of vaccines the people at the site were able to administer in a single day – 1,000 – a quantity unimaginable when the clinic first opened and, due to limited vaccine supplies, averaged only 20 a day.

Shots in Arms

The journey to the 1,000 began in early December, when a small team led by Howard Schapiro, MD, gathered to figure out how they would begin “getting shots in arms” once the deliveries of vaccines began later that month. Dr. Schapiro, a long-time leader at the University of Vermont Medical Center and UVM Health Network Chief Population and Quality officer, had been charged with figuring out how to set up a remote vaccination site within one week, from scratch.

The first task, of course, was figuring out a location. The vaccine task force considered multiple sites, but they quickly turned to a community partner that had helped them out before, the Expo in Essex.

Early in the pandemic, the Expo served as a drive-through testing center; now its leaders were eager to help provide space for an indoor vaccination site. 

“From day one, our board of directors said, ‘Let’s do whatever is needed, whatever we need to do,’ says Tim Shea, Executive Director of the Champlain Valley Expo.  Like so many other businesses, the Expo had been devastated by COVID-19.

“We are in the business of having thousands and thousands of people shoulder-to-shoulder,” says Shea, referring to the Expo’s role in hosting hundreds of events a year, including the state’s largest event: The Champlain Valley Fair, which traditionally has 120,000-plus attendees.

“We were looking forward to getting back to some normalcy,” he says, “but in the meantime, the role this facility could play was vital for the community in regard to the state’s response to COVID. How the fairgrounds could help, Shea says, could serve to remind people of their role as a resource beyond events such as fairs, car and boat shows. “The community needs a resource like this.”

And so building a clinic within the Expo began in earnest, the clock ticking loudly in the background. 

Early on, the team from UVM Medical Center included Mike Conti, a Transport Team lead who helped set up drive-through COVID-19 testing at the Expo; Pharmacy Director Wes McMillian, who helped identify a system for receiving, storing and transporting vaccines; Lisa Goodrich, vice president of UVM Health Network Medical Group Operations, who helped lead the vaccination clinic effort; Todd Young, Director of Network Telehealth Services, whose team helped bridge the gap between operations and technology; and Nicole Courtois, RN, who would serve as the onsite leader for the vaccination clinic.

In the following months, their collective expertise would allow Courtois to track and implement thousands of process improvements to create smooth and reliable workflows for the process and a seamless and welcoming process for those who came to get vaccinated. 

“All of us felt the pressure to do this right,” says Young. “Seeing the process work, and talking to patients, it really does touch you.”

80,000 and Counting

Like other community members who had vaccination appointments at the Expo, LaBerge and Roberts knew none of this backstory when they arrived for their vaccinations. All they remember is that they were welcomed with big smiles by greeters who told LaBerge she was No. 1,000, and Roberts number 1,001. Relief flooded in.

LaBerge called the experience “just as easy as it could possibly be,” noting how friendly, calm and professional everyone was. “We just flowed from station to station,” Roberts adds. “There was never any confusion.” As someone with experience in emergency preparedness, he says what was remarkable was how unremarkable the whole experience felt.

The Expo clinic continues its work vaccinating the community, now accepting all ages, and even walk-ins. On April 2, the site set a one-day record of 1,060 vaccinations. At last count, they had vaccinated a total of 66,108 Vermonters.

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