Standing in a line that stretched the length of a shopping mall, San Antonio residents waited their turn Monday for one of the first rounds of the vaccine against the coronavirus.

It was the first day of a vaccination rollout University Health has planned over the next two weeks to inoculate more than 17,000 people prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine: those 65 and older or people with certain chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, that put them at greater risk for a poor outcome if infected. 

University Health announced the vaccine distribution on Thursday and within less than five hours, all available appointments were filled. 

“The demand is just overwhelming,” said Ed Banos, chief operating officer at University Health, who spoke to the San Antonio Report while overseeing the effort at Wonderland of the Americas Mall to inoculate 1,400 people a day. 

For now, plans to open registration for another round of vaccinations are on hold until the hospital receives its next shipment of vaccine. “We’re hoping we’ll have that this week, but we don’t know,” Banos said. “So we don’t want to schedule it and get anybody’s hopes up until we know that we’re going to be getting another round of vaccines.”

The hospital system also intends to add other vaccination sites around the city in addition to the mall, which was deemed a central location with indoor waiting areas and ample parking, Banos said. “Because it takes a pharmacist, it takes staff and others, this is just more efficient for us right now to try and get as many people inoculated as possible.”

University Health is not the only San Antonio hospital system or health facility offering the COVID-19 vaccine for those identified as most at risk – health care workers and nursing home residents. But Monday’s event represents the largest-scale vaccination effort so far for the next-in-line group, referred to as Phase 1B.

Though there has been some confusion over which facilities would have the vaccine, and in what order it should be administered, Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, has directed vaccine providers to “administer their entire allotment with all deliberate speed.”

Those who signed up for the University Health rollout were eager for the vaccine. Worried there wouldn’t be enough shots or they would miss their turn, some of those who had pre-registered for the vaccination arrived hours before their appointment time, leading to the long line. Vaccinations will continue at the mall Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., for the next two weeks. For those who have an appointment, showing up early isn’t necessary, however. 

“If you’re on the schedule, if you registered and they have your name, then you’ll be given the vaccine,” said University Health spokeswoman Shelley Kofler. 

Mary Jane Tasker, age 76, got in line for the vaccine with her daughter Heather, 56, just before 9 a.m. and waited about an hour before rolling up her sleeve. Tasker said she believes the vaccine will protect them both from the virus. 

“I wanted to get it because of my age and because I have a caregiver for her,” she said pointing to her daughter. “She has cardiac disease and she had open heart surgery this summer. So we’re being real careful.”

Tasker has ventured out of her house only to shop at H-E-B and for doctor’s appointments. Her daughter quit work bussing tables at two local restaurants in March, and her husband closed his ophthalmology practice and now works from home as a consultant. 

“The time has gone quite fast, but I’m anxious to get as much protection as we can, to do whatever we can to not get it and not to spread it, to stay safe,” Tasker said. 

Mary Jane Tasker receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Tiffany Bios, a medical assistant with University Health System.
Mary Jane Tasker receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Tiffany Bios, a medical assistant with University Health. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Like all those vaccinated on Monday, the Taskers are scheduled to return in 28 days for a second dose of the vaccine. Even when fully vaccinated, she said the family plans to keep up with precautions despite the sacrifices. 

“Well, it isn’t 100 percent effective necessarily so we’re just going to keep on doing what we’re doing and probably for the rest of the year until [our doctors] say it’s OK to take your mask off,” she said. “We haven’t had anybody in the house. We haven’t seen friends. We haven’t gone to church, which is a big thing.”

Nurse Gregory Hernandez watched over the Taskers and about a dozen others after they were vaccinated, ready to provide care if anyone had an allergic reaction, while another nurse, Rebecca James, demonstrated a phone app for making appointments and accessing medical records. 

Though the vaccination effort is a departure from their regular jobs caring for patients, James said they don’t mind. 

“University has a lot of ‘one-offs’ because we’re part of emergency management,” she said. “Hurricanes happen. We’re out with EMS and we’re doing triage. Nurses are working the refugee centers. So University nurses are just like, this is our job. And we’re used to it.”

In the hallways, vaccination rooms, and observation areas, the nurses and other staff led patients through a hectic but orderly process. Behind the scenes, in a room by itself, boxes containing vials of the Moderna-made vaccine sat stored in a standard-sized refrigerator and a University Health pharmacist and two pharmacy technicians stood calmly and efficiently preparing syringes – one after the other. 

“It’s only 10:30 [a.m.], we’ve already done over 500 doses,” said Elliott Mandell, senior vice president and chief pharmacy officer at University Health. 

Pharmacy techs Heather Borrego, left, and Kathleen Zaragoza, center, fill doses of the Moderna vaccine for the coronavirus with pharmacist Shelly Wilcox. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The health care system has a total pharmacy staff of 400, he said, helping with coronavirus vaccinations while also supporting the care of patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 and filling regular prescriptions. In addition, the University’s Robert B. Green Clinic in downtown San Antonio is the vaccine distribution point for City and County first responders, who are still in the process of being vaccinated. 

Many volunteered for the extra work. “We haven’t hired more people for this. This is people knowing that this is literally life-saving – we all want to do this,” Mandell said. 

University Health will soon announce additional sites and mobile units where the general public can receive the vaccination, he added. “But it’s really all dependent on vaccine supply.”

“If we can’t get it, then we can’t give it,” he said. “We’re not reserving any. We’ve got a directive to get shots in arms, period. And that’s our whole goal. We’re doing everything that we can.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.