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Buffalo VA uses first-in-the-nation system to vaccinate thousands of veterans

Buffalo VA Medical Center (Andre Carrotflower/WikiCommons)

When staff from the Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System weighed how best to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine to eligible veterans, they worried bringing them into the Buffalo VA Medical Center for appointments presented a potential safety risk.

So officials got creative, setting up a dedicated vaccination clinic in a large, climate-controlled tent in the parking lot outside the main hospital. Local VA leaders say it’s the first clinic of its kind within the national VA health system and it’s the reason the local VA health network has provided initial vaccine doses to more than 14,000 veterans, most over the last six weeks.

“God bless our United States government. Our veterans are being well taken care of,” said Courtney Domowicz, a Covid-19 vaccine coordinator for the regional VA.

Other VA health centers now send unused vaccine doses to Buffalo because of this region’s efficiency in getting shots into arms, officials said. The tent operation provides more than 600 shots per day, to those who receive medical care through the VA and select federal employees, with most appointments lasting 25 minutes.

A Tuesday morning visit found Lucretia Cole, an exuberant licensed practical nurse and “drill sergeant,” walking up and down the center aisle near the tent exit, exhorting patients such as Leonard Darlak Jr. to rotate the arm that received the shot and announcing when each group had completed the 15-minute observation period and was free to go.

Darlak, 71, a retired Army Medical Corps nurse from South Buffalo, said he couldn’t believe how smoothly things went at both vaccine appointments:

“It’s like they were waiting for me.”

Reaching eligible vets

The VA covering the eight-county region of Western New York has delivered 14,336 initial doses and 7,900 second doses, federal data show.

The system includes the Buffalo VA Medical Center on Bailey Avenue; the Batavia VA Medical Center; seven outpatient community clinics; and home-based care provided by nurses.

The local VA said 10,848 eligible veterans over the age of 50 have received at least one vaccine dose, or 44% of veterans in that age group who receive VA primary care, as of Tuesday. The VA reported a 17% veteran vaccination rate on a national level.

In comparison, the Finger Lakes Healthcare System, which serves the greater Rochester area, has provided 7,008 initial doses and 1,963 second doses, but it’s not known how many enrolled veterans it serves.

Only veterans eligible to receive VA medical benefits are able to get the Covid-19 vaccine through the VA. Nationally, for example, just 9.2 million of 20 million veterans are enrolled in the VA health system.

Sean Lindstrom, another regional Covid-19 vaccine coordinator, said certain spouses and dependents of veterans and local employees of the federal Department of Homeland Security also are receiving vaccine doses here.

“It’s very organized. Professional. Quick. It’s a lot quicker than I thought,” said Jason Murawski, 44, a Transportation Security Administration screener at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, who received his second shot on Tuesday.

Vaccines in the tent

The local VA began vaccinating its workers and inpatient veterans at its Batavia facility in December, when the Western New York VA was one of 37 VA systems to receive the first batches of the Covid-19 vaccine, and started full-scale vaccinations in mid-January.

Last summer’s experience with Covid-19 testing and blood draws served as a guide, Lindstrom said. The Buffalo VA had set up drive-thru testing on its Bailey Avenue campus, near Grover Cleveland Golf Course, and parked buses on the property where veterans could have bloodwork done in order to keep this patient load out of the hospital building.

When the VA’s Office of Emergency Management offered Western New York use of a 15,000-square-foot tent — one of 10 available nationwide — local officials thought this would fit their needs.

“We were trying to figure out what we can do in our beautiful Buffalo winters,” said Danielle Bergman, the assistant medical center director.

The tent and its specialized equipment have a value of about $2.1 million, though the vaccination clinic doesn’t require the full array resources that a field hospital would, Lindstrom said.

People driving onto the grounds for an appointment are steered to marked-off parking spaces and directed to a single entrance into the tent clinic, where they are screened and have their temperatures taken. VA staff and volunteers keep things flowing in one direction within the heated tent, where flaps set off each of the nine vaccination rooms.

After veterans and others receive their shots they check in again to start the clock on 15 minutes of observation to make sure they don’t have a bad vaccine reaction. Workers give the veterans a form to fill out with details of their military experiences while they wait, a suggestion from a volunteer, Domowicz said.

VA officials had hoped to administer 500 shots per day at the Buffalo clinic, relying on a dedicated supply of the Pfizer vaccine.

“Now, 600 is a slow day for us,” Lindstrom said.

Praise from veterans

Bergman, the assistant director, said more veterans come through the tent for shots than visit the Buffalo VA Medical Center each day. And she said more than 200 unregistered local veterans have signed up with the VA over the past two months in order to get vaccine doses.

Further, according to Bergman, officials with the VA health system in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere have asked Buffalo for advice on how to set up a similar vaccination process in their cities.

Also, the Western New York system on Sunday held the VA’s largest rural vaccination outreach clinic at an American Legion post outside Jamestown, where it provided about 715 initial vaccine shots, officials said.

On Tuesday in the Buffalo tent, Jerry Terhaar of Getzville, 65, who worked in logistics in the Air Force for 33 years, was impressed with the vaccine operation and said it was smart to keep everything outside the hospital.

“I think the lesson we all need to take away from this is you’ve got to fund the health system,” said Terhaar, who held a copy of Foreign Affairs magazine in his lap.

Lisa Marie Williams, 47, a Grand Island resident who served as a Navy aircraft mechanic for 15 years, said she registered for the vaccination after getting a call from the VA. She said the pandemic has been difficult because both of her parents have health issues.

“I’m getting the vaccine so I don’t have to worry when I’m around them,” Williams said.

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