Early shot-takers praise compassion, can-do efficiency at Pipkin

<strong>Shelby County Health Department personnel and volunteers administer COVID-19 vaccinations on Tuesday, January 12, 2021 in the Pipkin Building at Tiger Lane.</strong> (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

Shelby County Health Department personnel and volunteers administer COVID-19 vaccinations on Tuesday, January 12, 2021 in the Pipkin Building at Tiger Lane. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

Jane Roberts
By , Daily Memphian Updated: January 12, 2021 4:45 PM CT | Published: January 12, 2021 3:53 PM CT

On Tuesday morning, Jan. 12, a small parking lot off Tiger Lane could just as well have been called Gratitude Lane.

People sitting in their cars there had just received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and were under the watch of medical observers.

To a person, they were humbled, grateful for the science that produced the vaccine and complimentary that the process for delivering it was orderly and smooth, including the flow of traffic into the Pipkin Building at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

“It was very organized, very easy, friendly staff; very happy,” said Julie Knudson. “We got here at 9:15 a.m. for a 10 a.m. appointment. We’re done,” she said shortly after 10:15 a.m. “We’re good.”

Within minutes, she and her mother were heading off for the rest of their day.

Two cars over, Gloria Fouche was smiling.

“It was smooth. I thought they did a very good job,” she said. “I expected to be in the line three to four hours.”

She got her shot at 10:20, about 20 minutes later than her appointment. She was still nothing but grateful for the work happening inside the Pipkin.

“I’m relieved. Now, I can’t wait ’til I get the second dose.”

Inside the 27,000-square-foot Pipkin, 10 cars at a time roll in, in single file. They turn the ignition off. Nurses situated down the line spring into action, collecting information, patting shoulders and smiling, and then delivering the serum. In less than 10 minutes, those cars drive off and another 10 move in.

That will go on from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays for the rest of January at Pipkin, the site for drive-thru vaccinations that resumed Tuesday.

“We have 40 appointments every 30 minutes,” said Judy C. Martin, chief of nursing with the Shelby County Health Department.

She was noticing details Tuesday, making notes and sending texts to herself for ways to improve a process that for the rest of the year will be the Health Department’s biggest interface with the public, ever.

On her radar Tuesday was how to factor in the variance in the length of cars coming through the line.

“We’re not perfect; we don’t claim to be, but we are striving to get better. Every time we do something, we’ll debrief,” Martin said.

The labor force is a combination of public health nurses, Medical Reserve Corps volunteers and a team of nurses funded by the state Department of Health to boost the labor pool for vaccine administration in Shelby County.

They include Shronda Posey, a home health aide, who took up the pandemic cause this year, and Myiesha Saunders, a nurse who recently moved here from Rhode Island.

“The days are long,” Saunders said. “The last one (at Lindenwood) started at 7 a.m. and sometimes went to 9 at night. This is a better atmosphere because we are warm and inside.”

By the end of the day, bodies ache and feet hurt, she said.

“There’s no shoe in the world that will prevent that.”

Still, the work is gratifying.

“People are so grateful,” Saunders said. “They tell us all the time.”

With 937,000 residents, Shelby County is the most populated county in the state. The Health Department and local hospitals, with the help eventually of drugstores, are in charge of vaccinating a goal of more than 70% of the people, and doing it twice within strict timeframes.

Federal government asking states to speed vaccine, not hold back 2nd dose

At Pipkin, the Health Department is armed to vaccinate more than 800 people a day, and more if they come two to a car, for the rest of the month. 

That makes Pipkin a prototype of what it will take to efficiently get people in and out across the county.

Depending on the supply of vaccine, it will soon branch out, Martin said.

“There will be other locations, but we have to make sure we have all the approvals, authorizations, plus staff and supplies. But yes, definitely something in Whitehaven and Germantown. Yes, definitely something in South Memphis and the inner city,” she said.

She was making no promises Tuesday about when and where. Neither were the nurses giving the shots.

For as good as it felt to get the first shot, every person in line now will need a second.

“They weren’t sure where we’d go (for the second dose),” said LaTrisha Williams, who came early with her mother, Mary Williams, to Pipkin. “They told us the areas may change. That’s OK. We’re in their system now. It should flow just the same, but maybe in a different area. I’m OK with that.”

Health Dept. will announce when more COVID-19 vaccine appointments available

Dr. Billy McCann, 86, a retired pediatric dentist, is completely comfortable that he will get his second shot and will receive adequate notification to do it.

“I’m as a confident as I can be. Things can snafu but, it’s all written on the back of the card we got,” he said.

Everyone who got a shot early Tuesday got it because they were quick on the draw, registering as soon as the SignUpGenius link went live late Friday, Jan. 8.

“You had to go ahead and do it,” McCann said. “As soon as I saw it, I did it and called to her,” he said, nodding to his wife, Betty, a retired RN, in the passenger’s seat.

“We’ve got to pick a time because it’s filling up,” he said.

Neither could imagine organizing a public health response like the vaccination campaigns the Health Department is mounting. If they go well, vaccinations will be as commonplace as COVID-19 testing has come to be.

“It was very well organized and they had lot of good auxiliary people helping. They all seemed to know what to do,” said Billy McCann. “The location is perfect.”

As they waited for possible allergic reactions, they were remembering other public health scares, including polio.

“The media was not quite as involved at that time and there wasn’t social media,” he said. “The population was very concerned about polio. It was the same situation; we didn’t know how to protect for it or anything. And before that, it was TB.

“I’m old enough to remember when they hospitalized people with TB and isolated them. Betty worked in the TB hospital here,” he said.

“There is a lot of political stuff involved in this pandemic, I feel like. But the vaccination really needs to be done. I would encourage everyone to wear a mask and get their inoculation,” he said.

For Betty Robinson, a 32-year public health nurse, working in the Pipkin reminds her of the red measles scare in 1989 and the Health Department’s mass campaign to vaccinate children.

“It was kids running and screaming all over,” she said.

The crowd now is a mix of ages because the Health Department is also vaccinating health care workers, first responders and people 75 and older.

“The last car I did was a mother and daughter,” Robinson said. “The mother was 93. She was so excited and giggling to get it. ‘This is just fantastic,’ she said.”

Robinson is retiring this year, which means the pandemic vaccination campaign will be the exclamation point on her career.

“This is a very critical moment because the numbers are steadily going up. I think we are providing a great service to the community right now.”


Billy McCann Betty McCann Pipkin Building vaccine Julie Knudson Gloria Fouche Judy C. Martin Betty Robinson
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


Want to comment on our stories or respond to others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only paid subscribers can add their thoughts or upvote/downvote comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here