UMass Memorial Health Care opens vaccination site in Worcester’s Mercantile Center as patients applaud program’s organization

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By Michael Bonner

As she walked out of the Mercantile Center Monday morning Rita Hamel thanked every health care worker she encountered.

“It was so pleasant and organized,” Hamel said. “They know what they’re doing.”

Hamel, displaying a sticker on her chest showing that she received the COVID vaccine, drove down from Leominster Monday morning for the first dose. Amid reports and stories of confusion, booked up appointments and spending hours searching for openings, Hamel said her experience was quite the opposite.

She represented one of the first patients at UMass Memorial Health Care to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The health care provider in Worcester opened its vaccination site within the Mercantile Center on Monday.

It will exclusively serve UMass Memorial patients from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., patients and non-patients can book appointments. Non-patients can access appointments through the state’s website.

“To be a part of this, it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my career,” said Jonna Dube, the senior director of ambulatory services at UMass Memorial Health Care. “A lot of people are anxious about it, so just to help them through that anxiety, knowing the only way we’re going to get through this is for people to get vaccinated, it’s so exciting.”

On the first day of shots landing in the arms of patients, UMass booked one appointment every 15 minutes at its six stations or 220 per day. Appointments slotted for this week are no longer available.

As the site progresses and develops a rhythm, the provider plans to administer about two doses every 15 minutes at its six stations within the facility or just shy of 500 per day.

UMass initially expected the facility to open in March, however, a working relationship with the Mercantile Center sped the process along. In another portion of the Mercantile Center, UMass has been administering free walk-up COVID testing throughout the pandemic.

The Mercantile Center is offering UMass the space at no cost.

“It’s so nice that there are so many partnerships because we’re all working on the same goal,” Dube said. “You don’t see that happening often. Everyone has the same desire to get us back to some kind of normalcy.”

Patients currently served at the facility are 75 years and older. Patients at UMass that use the health provider’s online portal, My Chart, will receive an email when they are eligible to receive the vaccine. Appointments can then be booked online.

Those who don’t use My Chart will receive a phone call and an appointment can be scheduled.

“They notified us via email last week,” Hamel said. “It was easy to book the appointment online. Then we were able to check-in in advance online. I am so impressed by the organization and the thought process that’s gone into this.”

UMass attempted to plan for everything to make the rollout as smooth as possible. The vaccination site is on the first floor of the Mercantile Center to avoid any stairs. Greeters meet patients outside and inside the building. Signs also guide patients in the right direction.

Patients can also park on the third floor of the Mercantile Garage at no cost. The third floor allows for street access to the building again with no stairs. Signs are also present in the garage.

Online booking is available in several languages to ensure patients will understand the process. Translators are also available when UMass reaches out to patients via phone.

“What’s really important is we’ve created a really safe and secure location,” Dube said. “We tried to think of every aspect from the parking garage to all of the signs to make sure our population 75 and older know exactly where to go.”

The Pfizer vaccine will be administered at the site. Nobert Albertson of Lunenburg received his first dose on Monday. The person administering the vaccine told Albertson to inhale before sticking the needle in his arm as a means of distraction from any potential pain.

“It worked,” Alberston said.

Before walking to the monitoring area, the health care worker reminded Albertson that the first dose only has about 60% efficacy for immunity against COVID. The second dose boosts that number to 95%.

He also advised Albertson, who was wearing a mask and a face shield, to continue wearing both even after the vaccine.

“This is terrific but I’m not going to start going around without a mask,” Albertson said. “It will probably be a while before anybody does that even with the vaccine.”