NEW YORK – The New York National Guard is back at New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, helping to turn what was a COVID-19 hospital in 2020 into a mass vaccination site in 2021.
Some 350 Guard Soldiers and Airmen worked with New York State Department of Health officials to turn the convention center, where 1,095 COVID-19 patients were treated by military doctors from March to May 1, into the largest vaccination site in the state.
The first 1,000 shots were administered on Jan. 13. It’s anticipated that several thousand people will get shots daily when more doses become available.
The first New York City resident to get a shot was 85-year-old Arlene Radmin, a Manhattan grandma. The process was painless, she said.
“The last time I was here at this facility, I was here with Governor (Andrew M.) Cuomo during a very different time,” said State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker at the Javits Center opening.
“It was in the spring during some of the darkest days in the history of this city and state. At that time we were here to set this facility as a medical safety valve,” Zucker told reporters.
“We set it up for health care networks that were consumed by COVID. While the fight is not over, we are here today with a much more optimistic outlook. We are here with a vaccine,” he said.
New York State received its first shipments of a COVID-19 vaccine in mid-December. Shots were initially administered to health care staff and those in nursing homes or long-term care facilities.
Now, with 600,000 doses administered, the state is expanding the eligibility to 7 million essential workers, educators and those over age 65, among others, as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The challenge, Zucker explained, is providing access to vaccine doses in as many locations as possible.
Three state-run mass vaccination sites opened on Jan. 13, and more are due to open in the next week. The sites will supplement locations run by counties, medical providers and pharmacies.
National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, along with members of the New York Guard State Defense Force and New York Naval Militia, will make sure things run smoothly at all of these locations, said Army National Guard Col. Michael Bice, the commander at Javits.
“This is about getting as many people through as we possibly can,” Bice said on the first day at Javits. “It is simply amazing to see this all come together, from the day we got here to get us all to today.”
"New York State is rapidly expanding our networks and capabilities to get as many New Yorkers vaccinated as fast as our supply allows," Cuomo said on Jan. 12. "The new vaccine sites across the state will expedite our distribution to get our most vulnerable New Yorkers vaccinated efficiently.”
The goal for Javits is to be the model for reaching as many eligible residents as possible with the vaccine, explained Dr. Doug Fish, the Department of Health pharmacy coordinator for Javits.
“Our goal is to vaccinate as many as logistically possible,” Fish said. “And the space here, the staffing and the ability to increase our throughput as more vaccine arrives will get us where we need to go.”
The Soldiers and Airmen at Javits provide more than the staffing for the facility and access control at the door of the site.
The troops walk people through every step of the vaccination process, from the temperature check upon arriving to the line where they wait for their shot to the recovery station.
During rehearsals and walk-throughs before opening, members of the vaccination team were able to identify shortfalls, obstacles or potential choke points to help resolve issues before they arrive.
That process will continue even after opening their doors to the public, said Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Jenks, the senior enlisted advisor at the Javits site.
“Every day, we will continue to improve our fighting positions here,” Jenks said, referring to the military cultural procedure to always seek improvement. “We got this.”
The biggest challenge on the first day was making sure the computer systems worked, Bice said. When automated systems hiccupped, paper backups worked to keep the site working.
“Our contingencies worked out today,” Bice said. “We didn’t have any human problems, just technical. And those can be fixed on the spot and tweaked going forward.”
People getting shots on day one ranged from those over 75 years old to essential workers from New York City agencies.
A second round of 1,000 appointments on Jan. 14 helped build staff “muscle memory” of the steps involved, explained New York Army National Guard Col. (Dr.) Jamie Green, the medical liaison officer for the incident command post.
The more we repeat the process, the better it gets, Green said.
Officials estimate it will take 20 to 30 minutes to get vaccinated when the center is up and running.
For New Yorkers, a Guard Soldier or Airman is the first person they see when they enter Javits and the last person they see when they leave.
“We offer everyone a chance to schedule their second shot appointment before they even leave the site,” said Army Pfc. Matvy Tylo, supporting the medical recovery section.
Radmin, the first resident to get her shot, said she really appreciated the Guard members on duty.
“Wonderful, unbelievable, they’ve been so nice to me,” she said. “I’m so proud of the American Soldiers. Unbelievable.”