As millions of Americans nationwide sat on their computers and telephones for days unable to score one precious .5 ml dose of COVID-19 vaccine, in Pima County, frustration grew and soared.
Then, near the end of February, Tucson’s local El Rio Health organization worked out a community plan with the Arizona Department of Health Services, which allotted them a supply of the Moderna vaccine. El Rio started offering vaccinations to their patients, and the supply chain started to move.
El Rio Health is deeply rooted in the Tucson community. It is a human organization, and its humanity is reflected in all it does. El Rio Health started in 1970 as a community health partnership between Tucson’s westside neighborhood groups and the University of Arizona College of Medicine. It has grown over the past 50 years into a well-equipped, well-staffed, well-integrated network of healthcare centers that serves more than 113,000 patients in Pima County. El Rio already had built a working appointment registration system that they’d been using to match patients with appointment times for years.
El Rio Health used empathy to make it easy for patients to get their vaccine. A brilliant strategy.
In fact, while El Rio was developing its registration system, the program developers worked in small groups to make sure the system was simple for staff and patients to schedule appointments efficiently. That gave El Rio an advantage over larger, more complex registration systems for matching patients with appointments and doses of vaccine.
I moved to Tucson last October after a 40-year absence and I’ve been an El Rio patient since before Thanksgiving. One day, I went over to the El Rio Clinic on Congress to pick up some meds, and an RN on duty said that EL Rio was starting a COVID-19 vaccination program for El Rio’s eligible patients. (The program was so new it didn’t have a name. El Rio said it just considers COVID-19 vaccinations as an extension of its vital services to protect Tucson’s community.)
The nurse handed me a photocopied sheet of simple instructions on how to register for a vaccine appointment using my laptop. She said being an eligible El Rio patient gave me an advantage, but they were still only vaccinating patients over 70. Not my group, unfortunately. But she said to wait, and they would probably start scheduling appointments for patients over 65 soon. Just keep checking the website, she said.
That night, I signed on to the El Rio/COVID vaccine website. It said El Rio was now registering patients over 65 for Covid-19 vaccines! When I clicked on the blue button on the screen that said “REGISTRATION,” I was asked about half a dozen easy questions: “What is your name?” “How old are you?” “Are you an El Rio Health patient?” I checked all boxes and clicked submit.
At 9 a.m. the next morning, an El Rio staffer phoned me and gave me an appointment for two vaccinations at the same time! I was so impressed. The instant the state opened the over 65 group, El Rio staffers called up eligible patients and scheduling vaccinations two at a time. No other vaccination system had been scheduling two vaccinations at a time. In fact, they hadn’t been scheduling even one vaccination at a time!
My first appointment was that afternoon. The second was exactly four weeks later. I couldn’t believe it. I was registered! And I hadn’t felt this sense of peace for the last year as fear of the coronavirus shut down the civilized world.
That afternoon, I stood in the shade of the El Rio Clinic at 839 Congress Street as a group of nurses working out of a white triage tent checked my I.D. and gave me a sheaf of papers to sign while two lines of cars pulled up at the drive-through. I was the only patient who had taken the electric-powered Sunlink streetcar out to Congress street, so a nurse invited me to sit in a folding steel auditorium chair on the sidelines to get my vaccination.
It was a beautiful desert afternoon in mid-winter as birds chirped in the mesquites and sunlight slanted across the El Rio campus a from behind the edge of “A” Mountain. I watched the vaccinators approaching each car from the sides. They quickly put the vaccine into arms of drivers and their passengers. It was an unprecedented ballet, each motion performed with the pace and passion to save lives.
When the vaccinator injected the dose of Moderna vaccine into my arm, I felt a small surprise of joy, as though this .5 ML of miraculous vaccine was what I had been waiting for since last year. I felt a sudden belonging to the Tucson community, as though I was doing my civic duty, putting my shoulder to the wheel to help turn the tide of COVID-19. So was everyone else. And we were doing a good job.