When Jennifer Tamo was asked to take the lead in setting up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for Nevada County early this year, the task seemed overwhelming. But by working as a team with many people who saw the urgency, keeping her eye on the goal and having a sense of grace toward others amid the confusion, Tamo said, they put together in a few weeks a project that normally would have taken months.
Treating each other with grace means “understanding that we are in uncharted territory,” Tamo said. “As a country, a state, we haven’t gone through this before… At the end of the day, I think people are trying to do the very best that they can.”
Senior Administrative Analysist with Office of Emergency Service
As of today, 54.5 percent of Nevada County adults have been fully vaccinated, less than the nationwide average of 58.2 percent, according to the vaccination tracker from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. California’s rate is even higher, with 59.6 percent of adults fully vaccinated, according to the state’s vaccination progress data.
Working through the challenges to achieve that level of protection leaves Tamo with a deep feeling of gratitude for every person who has been willing to roll with the punches along with her, she added.
Daily challenge: Wrestle the unknowns
Tamo came to Nevada County in 2013 as an AmeriCorps volunteer with a local nonprofit, “fell in love with the place” and stayed, she said. Now working in the county Office of Emergency Services, Tamo joined many other county employees who have been pulled in to help fight the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus.
In fall 2020, COVID-19 cases had surged and local deaths had shot up. In late December, vaccines started trickling into the county. On Jan. 14, the Public Health Department asked Tamo to lead the effort to set up county-run vaccination clinics, which would operate alongside other programs offered by local pharmacies and private medical practices.
“It was a really big task,” Tamo recalled. “An ‘a-ha’ moment for me was just how much of an all-hands-on-deck effort this was.”
She immediately faced daunting challenges: Who would supply the vaccines? Where would the clinic be located? How would people be scheduled? The vaccines would require two doses several weeks apart; how would that work? How would they provide space and staff for the required 15 minutes of observation after each shot? Where would they get all the people to staff the clinics? What about getting computers, equipment and furnishings, and setting up fast internet and other utilities? Would an outside organization come in to administer the clinics?
Tamo worked long days with many people in other county departments and outside organizations to pull it all together. She and Kimberly Parker, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Foundation, worked out a lease agreement with the hospital to use a building in the Whispering Pines industrial area of Grass Valley. The agreement was signed “at lightning speed,” Tamo said. Smarter Broadband donated internet access, and local artist Kathy Wronski lent her vibrant paintings of animals to brighten the space, according to a county news release.
Online appointment system had ‘hiccups’
Even as they outfitted the county vaccination clinic, it wasn’t entirely clear how many doses they could get, or when they could get them — even as people clamored for a spot in line. Of all her concerns, Tamo said, managing that demand loomed largest. “How are we going to meet the need, knowing that the supplies are so small?” she recalled wondering at the time. “There were so many unknowns at that point.”
A standard appointment system for those folks had yet to be decided upon. California counties each were trying different online platforms. They had different priorities for doling out the limited shots, and different ways of communicating with residents. Tamo looked at several of the early computerized systems. It was chaos.
“We were building the plane as it was being flown,” Tamo recalled.
“We were really kind of scratching our heads and figuring out what’s going to be the best way to make sure that it’s easy for people on the public interface, when they are experiencing the registration system,” Tamo said. In addition, she wanted an appointment system they could maintain week after week.
Then, they heard about an online appointment program state officials were testing with Los Angeles and San Diego counties, called MyTurn. County Public Health Director Jill Blake got on board. “We were able to get into the first phase after the pilot,” Tamo said.
She was relieved to join a system that was fairly straightforward, organized and consistent statewide,” Tamo recalled. “MyTurn didn’t get the usual testing and retesting that such systems usually undergo before rolling out, so its hiccups and glitches were refined in those early weeks of public use. We were building the plane as it was being flown.”
Staffing the clinics posed additional challenges: How long would the staff be needed? How would they ensure all the shifts at the clinic were covered? “It was essentially building an entire team to run something for an indefinite amount of time,” Tamo said.
Focus on the goal amid uncertainty
Throughout this period, vaccination guidance from state and federal agencies was changing frequently — sometimes daily, Tamo recalled. Officials at all levels were wrestling to decide which groups of people would get vaccinated first, and confirm who would provide vaccines to Nevada County.
Tamo took those shifts in stride. “I tried to not be too invested in any one thing,” she said. “What it takes is understanding the end goal, but (also) understanding your pathway to get to that end goal has to be fluid and has to be flexible… We want to make sure that we can vaccinate starting by a specific date, and whatever it takes to make that happen, you know, we can just roll with that.”
The clinic opened to a limited number of people on Feb. 3, giving Tamo and team the opportunity to refine their systems and recruit staff before opening to full capacity, she said. Meanwhile, Public Health Nursing Directing Cynthia Wilson recruited staff for the clinics from among county employees, volunteers from the community, Disaster Healthcare Volunteers coordinated by the state, nine paid personnel also through California, and five student nurses who received class credit.
They tested the MyTurn online appointment system on Feb. 9. On Feb. 10, MyTurn opened for people in eligible groups, Tamo said.
That’s 27 days from the time she got her marching orders.
Looking back at the resolve, collaboration and adaptability it took to open the clinic, Tamo credited everyone she worked with for recognizing they were in a historic moment.
“You can break under the pressure, or you can rise to the occasion,” Tamo observed. “It can be very difficult and very hard, but I have seen all the people around me rise to meet the moment, to meet the situation that we are in.”