For the past two weeks, the second floor of the Pottruck Health & Fitness Center, the Gimbel Gymnasium has been bustling—not with free-throw practice or pick-up basketball games, but with Penn faculty, staff, postdocs, and students navigating the repurposed space to receive their COVID-19 vaccines.
Just over one year since COVID-19’s impacts were first felt across campus, Penn is now offering one of the greatest tools in the fight against the pandemic to members of the University community. The successful launch of the Penn Cares COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic , which has so far vaccinated more than 2,100 people, is also a testament to the power of partnerships and collaborations that have helped shape the University’s response to the ongoing public health crisis.
Navigating a new phase of the pandemic
As with other campus-wide public health responses, from training contact tracers to Project Quaker’s role in the launch of the Penn Cares COVID-19 testing program, the approval and successful launch of Penn’s vaccination site was the result of collaborative partnerships across the University, including Wellness, the Department of Recreation and Intercollegiate Athletics, Information Systems & Computing, Human Resources, and Penn Medicine.
“What has been brilliant about this process is that we got to utilize our existing partnerships and expertise,” says Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter. “We have very much been privileged to learn from our colleagues, and we have done as much as we can to take the best practices from all of those spaces and teachers to create what we hope will be a very efficient process here at Penn.”
Before launching the Penn Cares site, staff from Campus Health staff also participated in several vaccination site visits, including Penn Medicine’s clinical and community sites and the FEMA site operated at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and were able to incorporate best practices when designing the layout of the Penn Cares clinic. In addition, the online scheduling platform for Penn Cares testing is the same one being used for scheduling vaccinations, and many of the testing staff were able to directly transfer their skills to working at the vaccination site.
After the Penn Cares site was approved by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, staff from across the University worked quickly to get the Gimbel Gymnasium built out in a matter of weeks. “We learned a lot from testing, and now we’re learning a lot about vaccines,” says Joe Haughey, who along with Mike Martin and Keith Maurer from Penn Athletics have been using their expertise in logistics to help run the COVID-19 testing sites and manage supply chains across campus. “We’ve been involved in a lot of activities across campus, and this vaccination site was a great reason to come together.”
Erika Gross, chief operating officer for Wellness Services, adds that being able to collaborate with different offices across campus has been one of the most rewarding parts of coordinating many of Penn’s public health measures this past year. “The people of Penn are what make this place special, and it’s nice to see it all come together,” she says.
From doses in vials to shots in arms
In its first three days of operation, the Penn Cares site vaccinated more than 850 eligible faculty, staff, and postdocs. Since Monday April 19, Penn also began vaccinating students. The Gimbel Gymnasium mass vaccination site has the capacity to vaccinate between 200 and 300 people each day.
At the vaccination site, members of the Penn community who have an appointment enter the Pottruck Center through the Sansom Street entrance and are directed upstairs to the Gimbel Gymnasium, where staff and volunteers check people in, collect required demographic information, ensure that any required second doses are scheduled, and direct people to where they need to go within the clinic.
For those with allergies or health concerns, clinical staff are available in the “VIP” (Vaccine Information Provider) booth to answer questions and provide guidance about vaccines; they are also on hand to treat any potential allergic reactions. And behind the scenes in the Multi-Purpose Room adjacent to the gymnasium, staff from Student Health are busy drawing doses from the multi-dose vials that are brought from Student Health each morning.
After a required 15-minute observation period, individuals can share the reasons they got vaccinated, with responses collected on large index cards that line the walls by the entrance and exit to the gymnasium. Common themes include an eagerness to see family and friends (“So I can visit my grandfather!” one card proclaims), a desire to travel and reengage with the wider world (“So I can go to ITALY” says another), and to keep themselves and others safe from COVID-19 (“I want to protect my community!”).
A path forward
On April 30, Penn will finish offering first dose appointments at the Gimbel mass vaccination site, which will reopen to provide second doses through the end of May. Even when the Penn Cares site is not in operation, the University will continue to offer vaccines through different venues as needed. Penn continues to encourage all members of the Penn community to get vaccinated and to also schedule and attend their second dose appointments.
And while vaccination represents a huge milestone in this phase of the pandemic, none of Penn’s public health recommendations will be changing for spring semester—regular COVID-19 testing, hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing will remain crucial to help keep campus safe. “We’re still in a pandemic, and until we have achieved herd immunity, and until most of our community has been vaccinated, we have to be diligent and deliberate keeping up with public health guidance,” says Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé. “I know we can do this together.”
As more members of the Penn community are offered their ‘shot’ at ending the pandemic, it’s also an opportunity to look toward a safe return of on-campus operations in the fall. Vaccines are one way to help bring back a sense of normalcy on campus, regardless of whether one’s reason for getting the shot is “to hug and laugh again,” “to be healthy,” or simply because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Homepage image: The successful launch of the Penn Cares COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic, which has so far vaccinated more than 2,100 people, is also a testament to the power of partnerships and collaborations that have helped shape the University’s response to the ongoing public health crisis.