In Washington, D.C., hospital staff vaccinated 1,750 public school workers in one day. It was a hard-won success amid a fragmented nationwide vaccination campaign fraught with challenges.



It's one of the puzzles of this pandemic. The economy can't come back online without working parents. Working parents cannot fully focus on their jobs without their kids being back in school. And their kids can't get back into school without teachers returning to the classroom. There is now a big tool to help that happen - vaccines. Here is President Biden speaking at a CNN town hall this past week.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think that teachers and the folks who work in the school, the cafeteria workers and others, should be on the list of preferred to get a vaccination.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course, this isn't only an economic issue, right? Kids need school for all sorts of reasons. And for many children across the country, they've been almost a year out of the classroom, hurting their mental health, their grades. Today on the program, we're going to take you to a mass vaccination event of public school workers here in Washington, D.C., to understand the enormous national undertaking underway.

BRIDGET CRONIN: We see 24 patients every five minutes.


CRONIN: And so to keep up with that kind of pace, they have a whole production line going in the back room.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This really does feel like a wartime effort.

CRONIN: Indeed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Bridget Cronin from Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. She's in charge of setting up and overseeing this operation at Dunbar High School. By day's end, some 1,700 D.C. public school system employees will have their second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. There are around 7,600 DCPS workers in total in the system.

CRONIN: We've established a pharmacy in one of the back - laboratories of the high school. And so we bring the vaccine from the hospital, where we keep it in the ultracold freezers. And we thaw it, and we bring it here and keep it in a small freezer here. And we have a team of people that's in the back room preparing the doses. But those logistics are really considerable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elsewhere in the show, we will take you inside that pop-up pharmacy. But here's one thing you should know about today's event if you want to understand some of the challenges of the biggest vaccination campaign in U.S. history. This event took weeks of planning. And the medical staff from Children's National, who have already done so much during this pandemic, are volunteering their time, unpaid.

CRONIN: We created a gigantic sign-up sheet. We have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that have signed up. It takes about 125 or 150 people a day to support this event. And so we had to call everyone - calling all hands, please come help us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, it's wonderful that the staff of this hospital has been able to help in this way, but it's also a symptom of the piecemeal and fragmented way Americans are getting vaccinated writ large. Still, mass vaccinations like this are more efficient when inoculating large groups, says Bridget Cronin, than the small-scale supermarket and pharmacy sign-ups.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So you're going to actually go straight down. Stay towards the left.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And they'll help you...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It took about a two-hour wait for some of the school workers to make it to one of the 24 tables where they were able to get their shot. Among them was Jose Roberto Reconco, a cheerful 70-year-old DCPS custodial worker.

JOSE ROBERTO RECONCO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He tells me that he and his wife got COVID in November. They didn't have health insurance, and so it was a scary time. He was in and out of the hospital. So getting the vaccine should have been a top priority. But he tells me...

RECONCO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "My wife is still so scared," he says. "She didn't want me to get the vaccine." She told him about her fears, fears fed by some misinformation. But he decided that if the world was fighting to get the vaccine, it made sense for him to get the shots, too. He jokes, she said to him as he was headed out the door today...

RECONCO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Do whatever you want. Just make sure your papers are in order," he said she said. "Where do you want to be buried? What do you want your coffin to look like? That way I won't be in a rush, and you can go into your hole in the ground as you would wish," he recounts, laughing. He is funny, but vaccine hesitancy is a real problem, especially among communities of color. According to DCPS, only 64% of teachers who were invited to be part of this vaccination clinic signed up. That dropped to only 45% when including other support staff. And even after they've shown up at the site, ready to be vaccinated, people have questions.

I see you've got a badge there saying, ask me about the vaccine. Do people ask you about the vaccine? And what do they want to know?

NATHANIEL BEERS: I think the first and most important thing we can do as medical professionals when dealing and talking with people about their own potential hesitancy is acknowledge our own hesitancy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Nathaniel Beers, a pediatrician at Children's National Hospital.

BEERS: So the first thing I do is acknowledge that six months ago, I, too, was hesitant to think about potentially getting the vaccine - but taking the time to understand the science behind it, to understand that while the vaccine itself is new, the technology that they used to develop the vaccine has been in development for many years. This is the first time that we're using it - doesn't mean it hasn't been tested many times in lots of different settings before it was used.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a message he's been repeating to those who are worried. Suddenly, at around mid-afternoon, another doctor stands on the steps of the large atrium where the vaccines are being administered.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Everyone, please stop vaccinating. Vaccine count commences now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's one of the many protocols in place to make sure all the vaccines are accounted for and that the pace is on target. Back at one of the tables, Dr. Craig DeWolfe, whose child is in a D.C. public school, is about to administer the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine to principal Amelia Hunt. And it's gratitude all around.

CRAIG DEWOLFE: It means so much to me to be able to give back to this - teachers and the principals and all the staff who have given so much to my son, our family. So we're in this together for sure.

AMELIA HUNT: I appreciate you tremendously. It's - I can't imagine what your job has been like.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then it's on to the medical questions.

DEWOLFE: Did you have any reaction to the previous vaccine?

HUNT: I did not.

DEWOLFE: Fantastic. And any other...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It will take many months to get teachers across this country vaccinated. And there are questions about the variants and other possible surges that could leave teachers exposed. The Washington, D.C., Teachers' Union has said that opening schools safely requires more than vaccines. It has stipulated that community transmission must be low, and there have to be measures in place, like good ventilation and cleaning protocols. Still, for her part, Amelia Hunt says this feels like a new chapter.

HUNT: I'm so excited because it means that we are taking that step forward, that positive step forward. I'm excited for all of my children at my school to be able to just see our building. This week is Random Acts of Kindness Week. That there's something that I can do to be kind to someone else is getting this vaccine because it means I'm keeping myself safe, but I'm keeping my neighbors safe as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.