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An Inside Look At The COVID-19 Mass Vaccination Site In DeKalb County

Peter Medlin

The NIU Convocation Center in DeKalb is normally used for commencement ceremonies and Huskie basketball games, but it has doubled as a mass vaccination site since January. The arena jumbotron even plays ESPN for residents waiting in observation after their shot.  

Last week, the DeKalb County Health Department held four vaccine clinics at the Convocation Center. The department’s team has been assisted by two, 18-person National Guard teams who help with check-ins, second dose scheduling and observation.

DeKalb County Public Health Administrator Lisa Gonzalez says doses are initially stored at the health department, sometimes in ultra-cold freezers depending on the vaccine. Then they bring all of that day’s doses to the site in mobile storage units.

“At this point, we're giving anywhere between 1,000-1,500 vaccines at any given clinic and those coolers can hold that and more,” she said.

She says they have about six hours to give the shot once they get it ready.

“We keep them in the cooler until we actually draw up the vaccine. Once we puncture each vial is when the clock starts to tick as far as that out-of-the-cooler time,” said Gonzalez.

The process is a bit different now that they just got their first Johnson & Johnson doses. Those can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures.

Although they’ve been able to pull back a lot of staff from the mass vax site, the health department is still responsible for management and storage on-site. Gonzalez says they still have staff leading each area of the clinic and they’re the ones drawing up vaccines for the doses. The health department also wants to be up front to welcome people as they come in.

But many duties are now taken by the two teams of National Guard members. One team is a static site unit that will stay at the Convocation Center. The other is a mobile unit, which will eventually travel the county for mobile clinics at sites in manufacturing and other sectors.

Normally, Gonzalez places a vaccine order for the county on Wednesday and it’s received on Monday or Tuesday of the following week, depending on the type. She says the number of doses they get can fluctuate a bit, but not drastically.

Illinois has recently been providing her department with a three-week projection of how many vaccines they expect to get. They’re close to opening up fully on April 12 when all members of the public become eligible, but right now the department is still only vaccinating people in 1a, 1b and 1b+ of the state’s rollout plan.