BERLIN — Thanks to the Central Vermont Medical Center, the “COVID Vaccine Hub” is coming soon to the Berlin Mall.
In a move that will immediately quadruple its capacity to vaccinate eligible Vermonters, CVMC is readying to set up shop next Wednesday in a portion of the vacant storefront that was the long-time home of the local J.C. Penney store.
The department store — the last of the mall’s original anchor tenants — closed last October.
In partnership with the state, CVMC has been been vaccinating 50 Vermonters per day who are 75 or older since Feb. 3. That number will jump to 200 eligible Vermonters per day when the new space opens next week gradually increase to 400 per day by April.
The satellite clinic, which will be staffed five days a week by a highly-qualified team of roughly three dozen medical professionals, will have the capacity to vaccinate up to 2,000 people a day if needed.
The product of weeks of planning and some necessary renovations to the former department store, the COVID Vaccine Hub will be overseen by Barbara Quealy, director of primary care operations at CVMC.
“The logistics of this vaccination clinic are extensive,” Quealy said Tuesday. “We’ve had a multidisciplinary team working tirelessly to create a scalable approach that will accelerate vaccination in central Vermont.”
That’s the goal, according to Quealy, who said the clinic will occupy about one-third of the former J.C. Penney store and be staffed by a team that includes retired doctors and nurses who are returning to CVMC to assist in the effort.
Anna Tempesta Noonan, president and chief operating officer of the Berlin-based medical center, isn’t surprised.
“Throughout this pandemic, the CVMC team has worked collaboratively to keep patients residents, colleagues and the broader community safe,” Noonan said. “This next phase of our pandemic response is no different.
“As the world engages in one of the largest collective public health efforts in recent history, CVMC is doing its part to support the health and wellness of our community,” she added.
Quealy echoed that assessment.
“We are committed to being part of the community response to this pandemic,” she said.
Quealy said opening a “high-volume clinic” in accessible space just across the street from the medical center was the logical next step — one that has been in the works for several weeks.
Though the CVMC has vaccinated 3,500 Vermonters in less than a month, it has done so using conference rooms and lobby space in the hospital.
Quealy said it’s a system that worked for priority Vermonters ranging from patient-facing CVMC staff and first responders to home health providers and independent caregivers. However, its capacity was limited and that is about to change now that carefully-planned renovations to the former J.C. Penney store are complete.
“We’ve transformed the space,” she said, explaining a design team leaned heavily on CVMC facilities staff to complete that important task.
They stripped out old shelving, lighting and other remnants of the department store and created a “very efficient set up” with 48 suitably-spaced patient stations and a greeting station where patients will be screened and temperature checked before being escorted to a nursing station for their vaccination. Following a brief wait, they will then be escorted out, but not before those who need to, make an appointment for their second dose of the vaccine.
At the outset, Quealy said there will be eight “vaccinators” on duty on any given day and each will see between six and eight patients a shift.
Vaccinating 200 patients a day is the initial goal and within three weeks, that number will jump to 300 with the goal of getting to 400 a day by April.
Pressed for a guess, Quealy said the clinic could remain open at the mall for six months before providing a broader answer.
“As long as it takes,” she said.
Though it’s only a temporary arrangement, mall manager Kay Nuissl said signs declaring the presence of the COVID-19 Vaccine Hub will join those for Walmart, Kohl’s and Planet Fitness on the pylons at the mall’s entrances on Fisher Road and the Route 62 later this week.
“We’re just thrilled to have them here,” she said.
Signs aside, Quealy stressed the clinic will be an appointment-only operation and eligible Vermonters are encouraged to use the state Department of Health’s scheduling portal (https://vermont.force.com/events/s/selfregistration).
Using the online system whenever possible helps prevent the phone lines from being overwhelmed. Those scheduling a vaccination are asked to register at a site closest to their home and keep the appointments they make to avoid the wasting of vaccine doses.
Unlike J.C. Penney and other mall tenants, Quealy said the CVMC clinic, which hasn’t yet opened, will declare success when it closes for good.
“We’re looking forward to being out of the COVID business,” she said.