A day at the Polk County Health drive-thru clinic

On Friday, Feb. 12, on what was forecast to be one of our coldest days of the year, the Polk County Health Department (PCHD) was once again prepared to deliver the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in its drive-thru clinic with a schedule for the day full of teachers and those 65 and older.

At Des Moines University (DMU) and through our partnership with the PCHD, our students have an opportunity to play a role in this community-wide effort. There were a few open slots for our student workers we had committed to for the day, so it was a perfect opportunity for me to attempt to be a substitute and see the process we were involved in up close.

I left my warm, cozy office on the DMU campus and headed to the Polk County Health Department at 19th and Carpenter after changing into the appropriate outdoor clothing I knew I would need. Upon my arrival, I was given an iPad to check in patients. It was from this moment on for the next eight hours, I saw the most organized and perfectly coordinated effort of this much-coveted vaccine along with the numerous moving parts needed for the distribution to do it all successfully and effectively.

Our involvement with PCHD, like many others, started in the middle of March when we received a call from Helen Eddy, director of the PCHD. There was a team of health care providers she had assembled, and she wanted to ensure DMU was included. The meetings were taking place at the PC Emergency Management Office. The area where we met looked like a war room with coordination of law enforcement and leaders from each of the various health care organizations. The representatives from Broadlawns, MercyOne, UnityPoint and others were not competitors, but instead front-line health care leaders pulling together for what they knew would be ahead with the first cases of COVID-19 having been identified in Iowa. I also knew they had been gearing up for the long-awaited vaccine delivery when I received a call on New Year’s Eve from Deb, one of the people at PCHD I had been working with. She confirmed the training module, which she would be sending along for our first group of students arriving in January to help deliver vaccine. So, I was not unaware of the various gears all working together, and all along have been quite amazed at the coordination and collaboration taking place.

Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy and a PCHD nurse

We have heard and experienced the numerous health care heroes among us during past year as they cared for the patients with COVID-19. Their commitment and medical expertise in treating our loved ones has been nothing short of heroic.

Jumping ahead 11 months to early 2021, even though we now have the vaccine, many states and counties have been challenged with getting this into the arms of their citizens so we can take control of this virus. What I had the opportunity to experience firsthand on Feb. 12 was the result of a well-orchestrated plan being put into action. From what I observed, Polk County Health Department is a great example of what needs to be done. Other counties that are trying to obtain the required distribution levels by the state can take Polk County’s example and adapt it to their own specific situation.

Having a son in the Marine Corps, I couldn’t help but relate what I was experiencing to a military operation. The drive-thru clinic set up at PCHD is one way this community has a goal of getting the vaccines they are allocated in the arms of our community while ensuring not one dose of vaccine is wasted. To perform this vital job takes a tremendous amount of resources and leadership.

There are many nurses involved from several organizations to deliver this organized effort. Inside at PCHD, nurses were lined up wearing ski pants, their heaviest coats, hats and, of course, masks, ready to be sent to a car to deliver the vaccine to those with appointments. While their faces were mainly covered with hats, scarves and of course masks, their caring eyes told the story as these individuals were here because they see this vaccine as the way we can turn the corner on this virus. 

So here is how the process works: at the designated appointment time, those scheduled to receive their vaccine enter from 19th Street just one block North of University and Martin Luther King Parkway. The signage is excellent, and the cars wind their way through the parking lot and check points. The first stop is with an individual from the Polk County Sheriff’s Department who checks off those with appointments and turning those away without one. As the cars approach the west side of the building, you notice tents set up for the cars being directed into the protected structures for the vaccines to be administered. Before this happens, however, the public is greeted by one of our students from Des Moines University. These are fourth-year medical students, and they are just three months from receiving their degrees and becoming doctors. The reason they are involved is because this is part of a month-long rotation for each of them, and it is fulfilling an educational requirement in community medicine. Students must complete a clinical rotation in one of three areas for a month: global health, rural health or community medicine. This is certainly a community medicine rotation, and while the work is not easy and the days are long and often cold, I can only imagine the impact this experience will have on our students for the rest of their careers. They will always be able to tell of their engagement while in medical school in the community response to a pandemic.

At right, Sue Huppert, chief external and governmental affairs officer at DMU, takes a quick break with fourth-year osteopathic medical students Ryan Peach, Thomas Licata and Trevor Colwell. Not pictured but working on Feb. 12 were classmates Alexis Hanson and Kai Yuan Teng.

As DMU President and CEO Angela Franklin, Ph.D., often states,“We are a private institution but with a very public mission.” What I saw and experienced confirmed that DMU is dedicated to being a part of our community. DMU is without a doubt living its mission and vision, and Feb. 12 was one of the most fulfilling workdays I have ever experienced in striving to achieve this objective.

The education our students are receiving at the PCHD does not just come from checking in patients for their appointments, they are experiencing the importance of interprofessional education (IPE). This simply means the overall coordination and communication of the entire health care team needed to ensure the best delivery of care and outcomes for our patients. It is one thing to be told about how important this collaboration is but another thing for our students to see IPE in action. Believe me, they are seeing it with this experience at PCHD. Not one role is more important than another, and each person is an invaluable cog in this wheel.

We see long lines on television in other states and people waiting for hours to receive their COVID-19 vaccines, and I think there is a certain amount of frustration with the public in wondering what is so difficult about delivering vaccines. After all, we have all gone into our local pharmacy to receive a flu shot, and it seems like such a simple process. I believe people are thinking about the COVID-19 vaccine in a similar way, but from my one-day experience, it shows me what an intricate process the delivery of the vaccine is.

On Friday, I could not believe how many moving parts there were in the process but Lori, a staff member at the PCHD who seemed to be serving as the overall team coordinator of the day, explained the various steps and roles to me throughout the day. Polk County is committed to distributing all the vaccine they receive and not wasting one dose of vaccine, and to accomplish this it takes so much coordination. The limited supply they receive is carefully handled to ensure they can plan for delivering as quickly as possible the allocation they receive. Lori was proudly wearing a red public health stocking cap and moved throughout the various stations to ensure each step in the process was ready. I heard her mention to another PCHD worker that the vaccine for the next week had just been delivered and there seemed to be a relief in knowing they could continue to deliver this precious treatment to our community for their appointments next week. Lori is amazing and I was so interested in everything she was doing to ensure the process moved ahead seamlessly.

Throughout the day, Lori shared with me a number of the tips the PCHD staff has put in place for this distribution process. She demonstrated to me the best way for the nurses to obtain the “pulls” from each little bottle of vaccine as they prepared the shots for the appointments scheduled that day. She showed me the shots provided but then demonstrated the ones they prefer to use as it allows them to obtain the maximum number of “pulls” from each bottle. I watched her during the day calling people who had missed their appointment to find out if they had been successful in rescheduling or if it was because their cars wouldn’t start.

Lori and others on the staff would count out the number of appointments coming and carefully remove just the right number of vials of vaccines to prepare with the amount of time allowed between freezing and thawing. Lori is just one person of so many at PCHD doing this every single day, but I will always remember her and the detailed effort she was making to ensure vaccines were ready but not wasted. I can easily see why some counties are not able to deliver the expected levels of vaccines as it takes tremendous coordination and planning, but they can all certainly learn from the Polk County Health Department as they have this process down and are taking seriously the delivery of every available dose.

At one point during the day, when there was a bit of a break and we were all inside warming up and ready for the next rush, I asked the nurses to share a professional tip they would give each of our DMU students as they begin their careers in four months as doctors. The insight was priceless. As nurses they wanted our students, the future health care providers, to know they can be helpful and may have insights about a patient or more experience with a given scenario that could be helpful to them as new doctors. Overall, they were saying, we can help you, so let us.

While the day might have been cold, the warm reception by so many of the community members as they pulled up in their cars made it all worthwhile. Every person was so pleased to be there and to have the vaccine being placed in their arm. There were some wanting to take a photo as they received the vaccine, others near tears and many sighs of relief for having the vaccine in their arms. More than one grandparent said they couldn’t wait to hug their grandchildren or to be able to see their families once they have a second vaccine. Our appreciation of the dozens of staff members at PCHD working behind the scenes to deliver this vaccine to our community needs to be expressed, and to think this type of coordination is taking place all over our state, country and the world is hard to imagine.

Overall, my message to our community is we are so fortunate we have such talented people working hard behind the scenes every day to ensure the vaccine is delivered as quickly and as effectively as possibly. Just think of the scientists and researchers and the work they have been performing to have these vaccines available for us since the pandemic impacted all of our lives. But now as you anxiously wait for your turn, just know you have Lori and an entire team behind her each looking out for you.

Whether you know it or not, they are doing everything they can along with caring and exceptional nurses and a tremendous leadership team at PCHD that has been working for a year now to be prepared for this time.

When it is time for you to receive the vaccine, whether it is with a local pharmacy, your physician or the drive-thru clinic at your local county health department, please tell the person “thank you,” but know there is an army of workers behind each of them to protect you and your family with this long-awaited vaccine.

Sue Huppert

Sue Huppert is the chief external and governmental affairs officer at Des Moines University.

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