Inside the mass vaccine clinic

‘Joyful’ feeling as team of frontline workers immunize most vulnerable at Prince Albert appointment-based site

The Prince Albert vaccine clinic at the Prince Albert Exhibition is taking eligible patients by appointment. (Submitted photo)

It’s been a long time since the parking lot of the Prince Albert Exhibition has been full.

As one of the main hosts of big, annual events, COVID-19 has brought a quietness to the exhibition grounds.

Gone are the midway rides, horse shows and riding tournaments. Concerts, parties and even the annual Remembrance Day Ceremony have been cancelled in the past year since COVID hit Saskatchewan. 

The grounds have still been used — the grandstand, for instance, held a socially-distanced goat yoga class last year and is now home to the city’s new, expanded cold weather shelter — But the PA Ex, as it’s known locally, has sat mostly empty since last March.

Now, though, the crowds have returned.

Drive through the grounds today and you’ll see a full parking lot and a steady, but spaced out, stream of older residents walking towards the main doors of the main hall.

They’re smiling, they’re laughing, and they’re hopeful as they enter.

They’re relieved and a little sore as they leave, the mark of a COVID-19 vaccine throbbing gently in their arm.

The Prince Albert Exhibition — like Midtown Hall and the Cone Shop before it — has been the latest local landmark turned into a hub for COVID-19 prevention. The grounds play host to both the in-person and drive-thru mass vaccination clinics, open for eligible residents by appointment only.

Currently, that means residents in their 80s or older, or select front-line health care workers, are included in the province’s first phase of its vaccination plan.

Inside the P.A. Ex are rows of tables, set up at least two metres apart. There, in assembly-line-like fashion, residents sit down to get their shot. As health officials have said, that action is one of the most important as Saskatchewan looks for a way out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a pretty happy place,” said Danielle Sande, the immunization coordinator and a public health nurse.

People have been waiting a long time to have the vaccine and for their turn to come up and get the call to come in. For the staff that are working, it’s a pretty nice feeling. It’s been a very long year for staff, dealing with actual COVID clients. To be able to do the prevention part of COVID is pretty joyful and gives a sense of hope that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

When residents arrive at the vaccination clinic they’re greeted and given a health screening — much like the screenings located at several businesses and government organizations over the past several months.

Once they’re confirmed as healthy and able to be vaccinated, they’ll go into a registration area to confirm their appointment time.

Then, they’ll go to get their vaccine from a nurse, and proceed to a waiting area where they will be watched for 15 minutes to make sure they don’t have a serious reaction.

As long as they’re feeling fine, from there, they’re sent on their way.

Inside the clinic, Sande said, it’s a “group effort

“We have physical therapists, we have public heath, we have nurses — our immunization clinics are pulling staff from acute care, from other community programs like Fit4Life and the family treatment centre. It really is a nice amalgamation of all of the different disciplines coming together to make this possible.”

While everyone is wearing a mask, Sande said it’s clear that everyone is smiling.

“As a public health nurse, we really focus on health promotion, health prevention,” Sande said.

“For us to be able to offer you a vaccine in order to help prevent COVID is a really great thing.”

Sande stressed, though, that actions such as social distancing, masking and sticking to your bubble need to continue until the entire population can be fully vaccinated.

“Our case numbers are still high,” she said, “But the more people that we can get vaccinated, then the sooner some of these restrictions can be lifted.”

Sande herself has received the vaccine. Frontline health care workers — such as those who work in immunization clinics — are also included in the first phase of vaccinations.

“It was a pretty special moment to actually be able to get it for sure. It was different than getting the flu shot or the tetanus shot because we have put in really long hours. We haven’t seen our families for a year,” she said.

“We’ve been doing this, putting in 80 hour weeks, without holidays, or that family time. It’s not just the workers — it’s all the people behind us.”

Earlier on in the pandemic, Sande worked with public health on case follow-up, such as investigations, contact tracing and advising people of their test results. Her unit also helped set up the test centre. Now, she’s moved on to work on the vaccination site, including administering shots herself.

The vaccine, she said, feels like a flu shot or tetanus shot. It goes into the muscle on your arm, she said, and does make your arm feel a little sore.

“Some people are achy or fevered for a day or two after, but that localized reaction is the most common thing,” she said.

The second dose, Sande added will have a bit more of a reaction, with fevers, body aches and pains — general malaise.

The side effects are worth it, she said, as the province tries to head out of COVID and get back to normal.

“It’s a lot of work putting on these vaccination clinics, and with all the logistics behind the vaccines,” she said.

‘This is not like anything we’ve really done before. We’ve done mass immunization clinics before, but we’ve never had to deal with vaccines that have to be kept at minus 80 and are only good for five days and all these logistics and planning to make sure we don’t have any wastage.

“It’s a lot of prep work and we’ll be glad when that’s done. We are seeing that, hopefully, things will slow down and we can get that life balance back.”

The hope is as many people get vaccinated as fast as possible.

Then the horse shows, midway rides and parties, the laughing voices and smiling faces, will be able to return again.