Our correspondent’s quest for The Shot

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My wife and I got our first vaccine shots last week.  It says here on my official CDC vaccination card that it was the Pfizer vaccine.

Getting folks vaccinated has been a challenge. Developing vaccines requires science know-how. Getting people shots requires logistics expertise. The science part went terrific. The logistics part has been hampered by shortages and bottlenecks.

I honestly didn’t think I would get a shot until late spring or even summer.  I am 67, but there were a lot of first responders, nurses and meemaws ahead of me.

Then, all of a sudden, they lowered the age to 65 and over, and I went, whoa, they’re boarding our row.

But, like with testing, nothing is simple with vaccinations.  There is not one national system. It’s not like voting, where you are assigned a precinct.  It’s more like shopping for Cabbage Patch dolls in 1983.

So, shortly after the eligibility was extended to our household, we heard there were some shots happening at the high school in Kenly, about 20-plus miles from where we live in Clayton, if you go the long way through Selma. No appointments, just go on up there. But they would be shutting down at 2, and it was already 11:30 a.m. I asked the woman on the phone at the health department, is there a vaccine site tomorrow? She said that depended on whether more vaccine comes in, and she didn’t know. So, we hopped in the car.

By the time we got there, the vaccine had run out. Cars lined up on the little road into the high school were turning around.

I talked — well, whined  —  about this on social media, and a friend immediately texted to say hey, check out the UNC site, there are appointments in Smithfield.  I did and there were.  But you had to move quick, because other people had discovered this and slots were vanishing like paper towels in March.

I grabbed an appointment and tried to get my wife into the same time slot, but I wasn’t fast enough and she got bumped into the next day.

My slot was 3:45 last Tuesday, with instructions to show up at 3:30 to the Johnston Medical Mall, which is located across U.S. 301 from the Johnston County hospital, which is part of UNC Health. The venerable highway parallel to Interstate 95 is more familiarly known to locals as Brightleaf Boulevard, a legacy of Smithfield’s days as a tobacco town.

The mall also had a history that went back to another time. It was a textile plant until 1997. The building was renovated and now it houses a variety of outpatient services, medical practices and other health-related operations.

But I had never been there, and so when I drove up, I had my choice of a couple of entrances.  I stopped a geezer in the parking lot (a guy who appeared to be my age), and asked where the shots were. He motioned a thumb over his shoulder at a door. It’s real quick, he said.

I went in and while they were taking my information, I said you might want to put a sign on the front letting folks know this is the entrance for the vaccine.  The woman said pleasantly, well, if we did that, we’d be overrun. Ah, I said, realizing that I was in the presence of competence.

There was no line.  Just people with laptops and tablets, and you were passed from station to station.  Every station, every desk, was staffed by folks who had access to the same medical information on the same server.  I was handed off four times in about 5 minutes until I was waved on to the folks with needles.

Where do you want it, the nurse asked. Left arm, I said. She raised my sleeve, saw the tattoo, and said, nope, other arm. She stuck my right arm and that was that.

I was waved over to the final station to get my return appointment for the second shot. I went in at 3:30 and was done at 3:42, even though my time slot was 3:45. I want the folks at the medical mall running the country, I said to the woman at the last desk, and she was amused.

The vaccine site was one of 17 that UNC Health had set up in 12 counties that have drawn on staff from its network of hospitals and medical practices. Other healthcare systems in my region, like Duke and WakeMed, have also been vaccinating. Local health departments are vaccinating. But everyone giving shots is in the same boat. They are at the mercy of how much vaccine is getting shipped from the feds to the state, and supplies are tight.  In June, they may be giving out shots with scratch-offs at Circle K.  We may be awash in vaccine as new ones get through the FDA. But we aren’t awash yet.

And the news that supply is being diverted to mass vaccination events, like at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, makes me nervous. Cone Health in the Triad cancelled thousands of appointments scheduled for this week.

UNC started vaccinating its own front-line workers shortly before Christmas as vaccine became available, which helped it develop the assembly-line efficiency that I encountered last week.

My county needs all the vaccine it can get.  By last Thursday, according to the latest figures, around 8,000 first doses had been given in Johnston. In a county of more than 209,000, the herd is a ways from immunity. Johnston, now a booming suburb of Raleigh, has grown by more than 70% since they stopped spinning yarn on Brightleaf.

Since you asked, my arm was sore for a couple of days and I think I had a mild headache that went away with Tylenol. Otherwise, nothing. Get your shots.

Veteran journalist Dan Barkin writes a column for Business North Carolina.

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