The energy in the gym is palpable – a potent mix of excitement, anxiety and hope, reminiscent of first-day jitters at the start of the school year. This time, though, it’s the teachers and support staff feeling the anticipation of a new beginning.
In the heart of Deerfield, Ill., the local middle school gymnasium has been transformed into a COVID-19 vaccine clinic, with socially distanced stations manned by Walgreens pharmacists. Off to the side, another group of pharmacists form a highly skilled assembly line, carefully drawing up syringes of a substance that brings a needed sense of safety to the frontline workers responsible for educating young minds.
These pharmacists aren’t new to the effort to vaccinate America from the COVID-19 virus. Most have already given hundreds of vaccines to residents and staff of long-term care and skilled nursing facilities. But this clinic is different – an opportunity for Walgreens staff to help vaccinate teachers and school staff in their own community, which is also home to Walgreens’ corporate headquarters.
The federal administration in partnership with the CDC recently announced teachers and childcare workers should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations and receive their first shot by the end of March. School staff and childcare workers are now able to schedule their vaccination at Walgreens stores, and the company is working with state and local jurisdictions, as well as school districts, to conduct dedicated clinics – like this one in Deerfield – for school staff and childcare workers. Beyond the Deerfield community, Walgreens also recently collaborated with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Department of Public Health to vaccinate CPS teachers and staff at school-based clinics throughout Chicago.
They know us, we know them
As Kyle Kwak, the pharmacist running point for the Deerfield clinic, watched school district staff filter in throughout the day in carefully controlled shifts to receive their first shots, he thought it was “community pharmacy” in the truest sense of the word.
“A lot of people recognize me,” laughs Kwak, who manages a 24-hour Walgreens pharmacy in the heart of Deerfield. “That is one of the reasons they sent me, because our store is part of this community. And it’s a really great moment for these people, our customers and patients … first thing in the morning, everyone was cheering because they were so excited to get their shots.”
Kwak fill syringes with the COVID-19 vaccine.
This isn’t Kwak’s first rodeo. He’s been staffing clinics for long-term care facilities and nursing homes since the vaccines first arrived, as have most of the pharmacists here. One of those pharmacists is Anish Patel, a pharmacy manager from Hoffman Estates, Ill., who offered to attend this clinic on his day off.
“This is very different from the long-term care facility clinics I’ve done,” Patel reflects. “Those have been tougher emotionally, knowing that those patients were older and sicker, and hadn’t been able to see their loved ones due to the pandemic. But there is a definite sense of joy today – everyone is so happy to be here getting vaccinated, and to be able to get back to school and get the kids back to school.”
Patel shares that the past year has been a “rollercoaster,” but that moments like this make everything worth it. “The work we are doing is important, but it’s also enjoyable – especially days like today. It’s great to get out there in the community and interact – we interact with patients at the store, but this is on a whole different level.”
Helping Patel as he administers shots is Joy Ro, a pharmacy tech from neighboring Bannockburn, Ill. This is only her third month working at Walgreens, but she jumped at the chance to help with the vaccine effort.
“I am very happy to contribute to get us any step closer to being back to normal,” Ro says. “I’m working to get certified to immunize, but for now I’ve been helping with paperwork, post-vaccine observation – patients need to wait 15 minutes to ensure there are no rare adverse reactions – and doing whatever I can to help.”
And the pharmacists can use the extra hands. Running a clinic like this requires more than just getting shots in arms; there’s insurance and personal information that needs to be collected, vaccines that need to be constituted and logged, and close tabs that need to be kept on how many syringes are opened to reduce the chance of unused doses at the end of the day.
“It’s a true team effort, and it makes a huge difference having the techs here to help,” Patel says.
“It’s been my favorite day on the job so far,” Ro admits. “One person shared that her father had recently passed away from COVID-19, and how much getting vaccinated today meant to her… that was a really powerful moment.”
Like Christmas at school
Janice Barr has a long history with her school district. Currently an administrative assistant at Kipling, one of the district elementary schools, she’s also worked in the lunchroom and as a substitute teacher, as well as being a district parent.
“It is an incredible honor what these pharmacists have done for us,” she says, after getting her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. “When we found out we were going to get the vaccine, it was like Christmas at school. I’m not exaggerating – we were so excited and we felt that there was light at the end of the tunnel.”
When it came time to get the shot, she got another present under the proverbial tree.
“I knew my pharmacist personally – she was a fellow Kipling mom once upon a time, and now I see her at my local Walgreens,” Barr explains.
Asked how she felt after receiving her shot, she quickly responds with an effusive, “Great!”
“My pharmacist – and friend – was really warm and kind, and gave me advice like to relax my arm. She also told me to get an extra hour of sleep today, so I’m very excited about that,” Barr laughs. “From start to finish, this has been a really great day.”
More than 500 shots later, the pharmacy teams appear to agree with Barr’s assessment. They smile behind their masks and face shields, feeding off the warm and grateful energy that has filled the room for seven straight hours.
“With everything going on right now, everybody has someone they know or lost, or knows somebody who has lost someone. Getting vaccinated is big,” says Patel. “As pharmacists, we’ve never done anything like this, so to be part of something like this, where you are making change and seeing people getting back out and living their lives again, that’s huge.”
This week, the Deerfield school district began in-person learning again – a timeline its teachers say would not have been possible without Walgreens.