On Tuesday, Mar. 2, outside WellMed‘s vaccination clinic at the Elvira Cisneros Senior Community Center, a line of masked San Antonians stretched along the strip mall storefronts leading to the clinic entrance. Each was eager to join the ranks of the vaccinated.

They would be among 2,200 residents to receive the first or second dose of the vaccine at the clinic on that day, and a total of 75,000 residents vaccinated by WellMed in the first eight weeks of the program.

I was one of them.

Like many in San Antonio, my family, friends, and colleagues had expressed exasperation at trying to get their vulnerable loved ones or themselves vaccinated. Appointments would be opened and be filled within minutes, and that was before Texas on Wednesday expanded vaccine eligibility to people 50 and older.

In late February, a friend had recommended volunteering at the WellMed vaccination clinics as a way to get vaccinated while giving back to the community. I’m not over 65 and have no CDC-cited underlying health conditions, but I was eager to get the vaccine.

Months earlier, I had tried to volunteer through the Alamo Area Medical Reserve Corps. Slots filled quickly, and after several attempts I was unsuccessful at signing up. Through WellMed, however, my first attempt netted two volunteer slots, with many more openings available, and a choice of clinic location for each shift.

WellMed requests that volunteers work four half-day shifts, or two full-day shifts, before a vaccination would be given.

‘An Earth project’

On March 2, the route to my first shift at the Elvira Cisneros clinic was delayed by a massive traffic back-up. I rushed in at 12:31 p.m., one minute late, and was greeted by a temperature-checker in full pandemic gear: a yellow plastic full-length protective tunic, neoprene gloves, N-95 mask, and clear face shield.

Volunteers are given a variety of roles: Patient monitors observed the recently vaccinated for any signs of allergic reactions, then disinfected their chairs after a 15-minute observation period was up; check-in helpers sat behind Plexiglas shields to take the names and personal information of incoming patients; and runners performed tasks such as directing people to the vaccination room, handing out WellMed information and cooling gel packs to offset any pain from the needle poke, and giving “¡Superemos Esto!” stickers to Spanish speakers on their way out.

A fellow first-time volunteer said her workplace had asked each employee to volunteer in order to get vaccinated, and gave time off in order to do so. Her four shifts would be completed in one week. I had planned my own four, half-day shifts over two weeks.

Once I started in the patient monitor area, the flow of vaccine recipients kept me and several other volunteers busy sanitizing chairs and cheerfully checking in with people to make sure they were suffering no reactions after getting the vaccine. In the chairs was a representative sample of San Antonians, from elderly folks, some with younger caregivers accompanying them, to middle-aged men and women, to younger people.

Allen Kim, a 29-year-old real estate contractor getting vaccinated with friends, said at first they questioned whether they should try for vaccinations ahead of others in more vulnerable populations. “To be honest. … We weren’t sure if it was appropriate, to be frank, to be because we are young and healthy. … So we were a little apprehensive, but we still figured it wouldn’t hurt to get a vaccine.”

Jon Ferguson, 29, said that while he had been worried that his status as a smoker might leave him more vulnerable to COVID-19, being vaccinated is “more for everyone else around me.”

Mike Reynolds, 30, agreed. “The more people that get it, the faster things get back to normal.” Informed of my volunteering as a route to get vaccinated, the three said they hadn’t been aware of the possibility.

Dr. Michael Almaleh is chief of cardiology and specialty care for WellMed and medical director of WellMed’s three mass vaccination clinics. Asked about the ethics of volunteering in order to gain the vaccine, Almaleh said his priority was first to help vaccinate San Antonio’s vulnerable populations, but he approved of the volunteer program.

“I feel strongly that this is not a WellMed project, or a San Antonio project. This is an Earth project, right? The whole planet is affected by this, and I am a fan of everybody coming together and helping,” Almaleh said.

He said he’s surprised more people haven’t signed up to help out. “I would love to start turning away volunteers. That would mean that we have enough volunteers.”

The Alamodome option

The City of San Antonio’s Alamodome vaccination site also makes use of volunteers, who are expected to complete two 6 1/2-hour shifts before receiving the vaccine. Shari Biediger, a San Antonio Report business reporter, had trouble finding an open second shift but noted many slots were available for bilingual volunteers able to serve as translators.

Volunteer shifts take place at the Alamodome’s mass vaccination site. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Any extra doses of vaccine must be used or would have to be discarded, generally due to strict refrigeration requirements. On her first day volunteering, Biediger was in line for one extra dose, but it went to someone else. Two days later, however, she received a text message that she would be scheduled to receive the vaccine.

Biediger worked alongside an artist who helps run the nonprofit Spare Parts, a Broadway actor who moved home to San Antonio last year, a couple who works for the National Park Service, and an attorney and mother of three who came to volunteer as a Spanish translator.

“Each had a unique story to tell about how they had managed to sign up … and why they didn’t want to wait weeks to months when the vaccine might be more readily available,” said Biediger, who wanted the vaccine because she helps care for her elderly mother with lung disease. “The common thread was a desire to protect others and move on from the pandemic.”

All volunteers recognized that they were putting themselves at risk interacting with so many people from the community, she said.

While the Alamodome vaccination site is stationed outdoors with recipients remaining in their cars, hundreds of people stream through the WellMed sites at any given time.

Carol Zernial, senior vice president of social responsibility for WellMed and executive director of the WellMed Charitable Foundation that is primarily funding their vaccination effort, said that while the clinic is as safe as they can make it, she recommended that “people who are nervous about being around all those people, definitely do not put yourself in that situation.”

Brittany Pratt, WellMed vice president of social responsibility, put the risk and ethics of volunteering into perspective.

“There are a lot of folks that need the vaccine. … But the guidelines that we follow come from the CDC, which is if you are working in that clinic, you become a part of one of the risk categories, which is a frontline health worker,” Pratt said. “To us, that becomes the impetus for offering the vaccine to whoever wants to [volunteer].”

Shari Biediger, a reporter with the San Antonio Report, receives her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine after volunteering at the Alamodome. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Getting ‘the jab’

While I expected to put in my four six-hour shifts as a volunteer before being vaccinated, at the end of my first shift, the vaccine moved from abstraction to reality.

Six unvaccinated volunteers learned there were six extra Moderna doses at the end of a long day. We were brought to a check-in table to be registered with name, address, and date of birth – information that is verified by the nurse or doctor administering the shots.

Like the thousands who had gone before me, I walked in anxious anticipation to the vaccine room. Twelve numbered tables, each with a chair for patients at either end, were ready to receive us.

Pattie Heath, a nurse with 40 years experience, handled the needle. I didn’t feel a thing. Heath wished me well, and that was that.

Nicholas Frank receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pattie Heath, a registered nurse. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

About three hours later, I would notice a dull ache in my arm. Later, I’d be awakened in the middle of the night by surging pain in the arm, followed by a brief bout of nausea when I went to the kitchen for water. In the morning, I slept through my alarm and missed my morning work meeting. An understanding editor let me off the hook, saying she’s heard from others who’ve received the shot that the side effects can be rough. After a day of aches and general fatigue, I felt more or less better.

When I returned to the clinic the following Tuesday for my second shift, fellow volunteers reported far fewer side effects than I had experienced, but I found myself warning vaccine recipients in the waiting area to expect a bit of arm pain and to count on their cooling gel packs.

Due to a change in policy to help reduce data input errors, volunteers at the check-in stations were now required to serve full-day shifts, which meant working from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Despite the long shift, at 3:30 p.m. 35-year-old Samantha Bader remained cheerful. The mother of two toddlers, Bader had heard about the volunteer opportunity through friends and wanted to “find an ethical way to get vaccinated without cutting in line.”

Bader works in sales and is routinely exposed to many people throughout the course of her workdays, and Gov. Abbott’s lifting of the mask order might put her family at risk, she said.

Her husband, William, also 35, had received his first Moderna dose at the end of his first volunteer shift the prior day, she said, and he was scheduled to complete his commitment with an upcoming Saturday shift.

Relief and excitement

The day concluded with the potential for extra doses, but the nurses reported back that only one extra dose was available. Similar to the CDC’s Phase 1A and 1B recommendations for eligibility, among volunteers, age won out.

Jan Briley, 58, was just concluding her fourth volunteer shift and had not yet received a shot. She was quickly registered and spirited off to the vaccination room. Moments later she emerged to the patient monitoring area, having joined the ranks of the vaccinated.

“They had one [dose] left, and Cindy did me a solid,” Briley said of the day’s volunteer coordinator, Cindy Robles. “She made sure that I got it because every other volunteer was newer.”

Briley expressed relief and excitement. “I just feel strongly that everyone needs to get rid of this thing,” she said of the virus that has so far killed more than 2,800 of her fellow San Antonians, “so we can we can get back to some sense of living.”

Anyone interested volunteering at one of three WellMed clinics, including Cisneros, the Alicia Trevino Lopez Vaccine Clinic on Culebra Road, and the Doris Griffin Senior One-Stop Center on NW Loop 410, can register here.

The sign-up for Alamodome volunteer slots is here.

General information on signing up for vaccinations is available here.

Shari Biediger contributed to this story.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...