Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series recognizing the extraordinary efforts of staff who made the Brigham’s employee and patient COVID-19 vaccination programs possible. Click here to read part one, which highlighted members of the employee vaccination team.
As the first patients age 75 and older began receiving the COVID-19 vaccine at Brigham and Women’s Health Care Center, Pembroke, on Feb. 3, an unexpected sound caught the attention of Julie Owens, BSN, RN, one of the site’s clinical leads.
What she heard was cheers and applause.
“I soon realized that the patients were celebrating this moment and the joy of being able to get a vaccine,” said Owens, who normally serves as professional development manager for Brigham and Women’s Harbor Medical Associates in South Weymouth.
The emotions in the room — happiness, relief and excitement — were contagious, Owens recalled.
“Several patients commented on how grateful and happy they were to be one step closer to hugging their children and grandchildren again,” she said. “This touched me personally, as a daughter and mother of two young children who long to hug their grandparents again.”
That celebratory evening kicked off the Brigham’s patient vaccination program, which in its first week delivered approximately 1,700 vaccinations in total at the Pembroke site and the Hale Building for Transformative Medicine on the main campus. As of March 1, the Brigham has completed about 8,600 patient vaccination appointments, a measure that includes both first and second doses. Brookside Community Health Center will also begin providing vaccines for local residents starting March 4.
The program’s successful launch was made possible by the efforts of a large multidisciplinary team who worked tirelessly behind the scenes — and in close collaboration with colleagues across Mass General Brigham (MGB) — to provide a seamless, safe experience for patients and clinic staff alike.
“I am always looking for the silver lining to this challenging COVID experience. When I think about a silver lining now, I am grateful for the wonderful people across Brigham Health Ambulatory,” said Kelly Fanning, MBA, vice president for Ambulatory Services and Patient Experience. “Consistently, clinical and non-clinical leaders have stepped up to the plate to go above and beyond and deliver for our patients. What it has meant for patient vaccination efforts is that we have been able to run clinics daily, nightly and weekends to care for our patients and serve the broader public health need.”
Kali Kearns, senior project manager for Ambulatory Services, said she cherished the opportunity to contribute to such a historic and important moment.
“When we first started planning, I don’t want to say it seemed impossible, but we’ve never really done this and didn’t know what to expect,” Kearns said. “But once all was said and done, our first night in Pembroke was full of joy and relief. I was a little bit tearful myself because my grandpa just got the vaccine, and our patients coming in reminded me of him. It was so touching. They were so vocally thankful and said things like, ‘This is the best day,’ ‘This is going to change my life’ and ‘You’re helping me see my family again.’”
Pam Cormier, MSN, RN, AHN-BC, who led strategic planning efforts for the Brigham’s patient vaccination program and collaborated with leaders at the system level, described being part of this team as “a highlight of [her] career.”
“It’s been a lot of work, but when you can get this vaccine into people, it’s the best feeling in the world,” said Cormier, professional development manager in Primary Care. “Everybody has been willing to step up and do whatever it takes to help. I’ve yet to encounter anyone who’s said, ‘No, I’m not interested’ or ‘I don’t have time for this.’ The minute we reach out, people drop what they’re doing and ask, ‘How can I help?’ It’s the Brigham way.”
Complex Challenges, Creative Solutions
In planning a strategy for setting up and running patient vaccination sites, the team drew from their experiences with the patient flu shot clinics held last fall.
“We knew the model of standing up in existing clinic spaces — using the exam rooms, physical structures and staff who could work an extra shift — worked really well for the flu,” Cormier said. “We did have to pace it differently with the COVID vaccines, as we had to factor in the 15-minute observation period, but the bones of the model were pretty much the same.”
The employee COVID-19 vaccination clinics were also an important learning opportunity for understanding how a patient clinic would work.
“Starting with employees gave us a big window into some of the challenges we were going to face when we moved to patients,” Cormier said.
But the patient vaccination also presented new challenges — including different scheduling needs, additional staffing and location demands, alternative communication and outreach strategies — in addition to the ongoing uncertainties around vaccine supply.
Because demand for the vaccine greatly outweighed supply, the Brigham and other MGB institutions were unable to allow patients to self-schedule their appointments. Instead, the team began the meticulous process of proactively identifying eligible patients through Epic, formulating a strategy for inviting patients in waves and developing an efficient cadence in the clinic.
“It’s really about knowing how many patients we can vaccinate per hour and making sure that we build schedules that reflect that,” said Bill Guptill, director of Ambulatory Capacity Management, whose team developed the complex scheduling templates for the vaccine clinics.
On-site teams also worked around the clock to ready the clinics in Pembroke and Hale. In addition to setting up the sites’ various technology needs — from wireless networking to electrical engineering to software applications — a dedicated team of Information Systems (IS) staff provided at-the-elbow support for clinic staff before and after the vaccine clinics launched, said Michael Sweet, MBA, executive director of Clinical Systems in Brigham Health IS and Digital Innovation.
“Trying to see and touch base with everybody is a little more challenging in some of the ambulatory locations,” Sweet said. “By comparison, Hale is one big room, so we can see the vaccinators and check-in and check-out staff. But in Pembroke, staff operate on two floors and are more cordoned off, so it’s a little more difficult for them to see us, and for us to see them, when they need help. It was a collaborative effort to figure out how we could best support them in that space.”
Those who contributed to the patient clinics in February said they were grateful to make a difference and be part of this dedicated team.
“This was truly an endeavor where we operated as one system,” Cormier said. “For me, it was a very tangible way to show and leverage the power of an entire health care system. If you normally get your care at the Brigham but live closer to Newton-Wellesley, then you could go to the Needham site — no questions asked. That’s really powerful for patients. They see and know they’re part of a larger system that takes care of them.”
The amount of planning that occurred behind the scenes was a sight to behold, Owens said.
“Operationalizing these vaccine clinics has taken the work of so many people. Through countless hours and attention to every detail, our staff have made the process as smooth and streamlined as possible while maintaining our Safe Care Commitment,” she said. “I am especially thankful to our staff for their dedication to our patients.”