‘We’re trying to do the right thing’: More than 1,000 first responders inoculated at area clinics

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  • Amherst Fire Chief W. Tim Nelson, left, receives his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, administered by Fire Capt. Steven Chandler, during a vaccine clinic for first responders at the Bangs Community Center on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Fire Chief W. Tim Nelson, left, receives his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, administered by Fire Capt. Steven Chandler, during a vaccine clinic for first responders at the Bangs Community Center on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Fire Chief W. Tim Nelson, left, and Capt. Steven Chandler exchange a fist bump after Chandler administered a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Nelson at the Bangs Community Center, Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Stickers on hand at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst where first responders were receiving their first COVID-19 vaccinations on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Fire Chief W. Tim Nelson gives a thumbs up after getting his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and donning an “I got my COVID-19 vaccine” sticker at the Bangs Community Center on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 1/14/2021 1:29:54 PM

AMHERST — Before a syringe containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine was administered to Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson this week, competition likely occurred among the department’s firefighter/ EMTs to deliver the shot.

“I think there may have been a pool from my guys to see who could stick the needle in me,” Nelson said, chuckling about that possibility moments after he received the injection from Fire Capt. Steven Chandler at the first responders vaccination clinic set up at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst.

But joking aside, Nelson said the weeklong delivery of vaccines to first responders throughout the region in Amherst, at the Northampton Senior Center and on the University of Massachusetts campus, which comes after initial vaccinations given at hospitals, nursing homes and extended care facilities, is a critical step in ending the pandemic.

“Physically it’s just a little stick and it’s done,” Nelson said. “This is a good thing because we want to get as many doses into arms as we can.”

Between the regional sites, well over 1,000 police officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and others deemed to be on the front lines, are being vaccinated. The first responders will be notified at a later date about their second vaccinations.

“This is taking care of all first responders in the area,” said John Garriepy, division chief of emergency medical services with the Northampton Fire Department, who has been a coordinator for the Senior Center clinic.

Garriepy said 25 paramedics with the department signed up to disseminate the inoculations using the Moderna vaccine, which doesn’t require the super cold temperatures the Pfizer vaccine does. Once removed from a freezer, the providers have six hours to give the vaccine.

The Northampton site is inoculating 10 individuals at a time, in separate areas with plenty of social distancing, and the rooms are wiped down and sanitized after each person receives a dose. Garriepy said a person must wait 15 minutes after the vaccination, and up to 30 minutes if there is a physical reaction, before departing.

The Amherst site, run by Health Director Emma Dragon, Fire Capt. Jeffrey Olmstead and Nelson, expected to see 600 to 700 first responders passing through during the week. It was able to handle up to 270 people each day, or 15 individuals every 20 minutes. People arriving are handed a new mask, if necessary, go to the check-in table and then have dots on which to stand. Once seated, the vaccinator rolls the cart with all equipment up to them as a video with soothing music and information about the vaccine is shown.

Afterward, Dragon said people are given granola bars, apple juice and a commemorative sticker, before exiting the building.

There hasn’t been too much of a challenge in getting first responders to get their shots. Garriepy said all but five of 75 people associated with his department have signed up, with those not getting a shot only because they can’t due to a physician advisory. Most, he said, are happy to be vaccinated because they understand the risks they are facing.

“My guys are answering calls from people with flu-like symptoms throughout the day,” Garriepy said.

Belchertown Police Chief Christopher Pronovost said his department has been enthusiastic about the program. He also felt it was important to be vaccinated because his mother is in her 80s.

“That’s a big motivator for me,” Pronovost said.

The care for residents is a mission for his department. “They also don’t want to spread it to family members or to the community,” Pronovost said. “We’re trying to do the right thing and trying to create herd immunity,”

Nelson said his firefighters have supported the vaccine rollout, acknowledging they have a responsibility to get medical attention to others.

“We need to be here to take care of the public,” he said.

But Nelson is also hoping that widespread participation will encourage people and show the confidence that it is safe, like receiving the flu shot.

“For me, this is a chance to get the word out that it’s a good thing, it won’t hurt for long, if at all, and by getting it you’re taking care of all of us,” Nelson said.

For Nelson, too, he understands that as a Black man he is part of a segment of society historically “a little skittish” when it comes to vaccines.

“The minority community needs to be part of this, too, and embrace it,” Nelson said.

For the most part, any reactions have been mild. Dragon said in the first two days she had seen no anaphylactic responses, or allergic reactions. Garriepy said he had a sore arm for several hours the next day. Scheduled off days are in place so firefighters don’t have to work through that.

Meantime, the UMass site will remain open for first responders next week on Tuesday and Wednesday from 1 to 6 p.m. All eligible individuals must register in advance for the two-dose vaccine at www.umass.edu/coronavirus/vaccine.

Garriepy complimented the boards of health in both Easthampton and Northampton. and city public health director Merridith O’Leary, for their diligence.

Similarly, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman praised Dragon.

“Emma’s put an enormous amount of work into this,” Bockelman said, describing the vaccinations as the light at the end of the tunnel. “The vaccine is the first step in that direction.”

Dragon said overseeing the clinic gives her pleasure. “I can’t even begin to say how meaningful it is to do this for the community,” she said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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