But this is no ordinary year. The stands are roped off, sporting equipment has been swapped with tables and chairs, and masked residents wait in line for a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at mass immunization clinics.
Six arenas in the region – at Rockland, Hawkesbury, Casselman, Cornwall, Winchester and Alexandria – have been transformed into mass vaccination centres this month as the project to immunize the wider population ramps up. Thirty-seven such clinics have been planned across the region to the first week of April, with more expected after April 12 as vaccine supply, and those eligible to receive a dose, increases.
The Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) invited members of the media to a guided tour of the clinic in Rockland on Friday. The tour of the building, which was set up to vaccinate those aged 80 and over, was intended to provide a glimpse of the vaccination process and what the wider public can expect when the time comes for their dose.
In and out
Patients enter the arena through a single entrance, visiting a screening station before moving on to a registration desk, where their appointment and name are confirmed. The residents are then taken through to the main arena floor itself, which is divided into vaccination stations, as well as pre- and post-vaccination waiting areas.
Unlike in prior immunization campaigns, capacity is limited due to the ease with which the virus spreads. Both the vaccination stations and the waiting areas are spaced out to limit contact between patients during the process. Once a person receives their vaccine, they must wait in a designated area to ensure there are no immediate side-effects from the dose, before they are permitted to leave through a separate exit.
The Rockland arena will eventually be equipped to handle 20 vaccinators at once, but on Friday the capacity was limited to maximise accessibility for the seniors receiving doses. Ten stations were set up during the tour, but the staffing requirements went beyond those administering the dose.
EOHU Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, who led the tour, estimated an additional two staff members were required for every vaccinator. A special station was set up in the arena for “loaders”, specialists who prepared and handled the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses.
The EOHU has launched a recruitment drive to help staff the sites across the region. “We’ve got people who are volunteers and people working for us, we have health promoters, people working in our IT department,” Dr. Roumeliotis said. “We’ve also had bylaw helping us as well.”
Municipalities have helped improve accessibility to the arenas for seniors arriving for their dose. In Rockland, Dr. Roumeliotis said the city broke down parts of the sidewalks near the entrance to create ramps into the building.
The planning for these clinics started long before the vaccines arrived, but supply issues and information had prevented their implementation until now. “We had this plan on paper, the problem was we weren’t getting enough vaccine,” Dr. Roumeliotis said. “On a Tuesday or Wednesday we find out what we’re getting on a following Monday, so it’s very hard to plan. As of last Saturday, we were getting allocations for a month.”
The EOHU expected to get 4800 doses per week over the next four weeks. More than 18,500 vaccinations had been administered in the area so far at the end of last week, while 5000 people aged 80 and over had registered to be vaccinated on the province’s online booking system. That number was expected to expand this week, with the province opening bookings to those aged 75 and over.
If the number of vaccine arrivals continued to increase, Dr. Roumeliotis was optimistic that a “significant” percentage of the adult population could receive at least their first dose by the start of May. However, he warned against complacency, as COVID cases and variants rose in the region.
“It’s still not time for us to let go of the masks, we still have a ways to go,” he said. “Use the vaccine as an inspiration.”
Clarence-Rockland mayor Guy Desjardins thanked everyone involved in the setup of the vaccination site. “Now the clinic is ready, I encourage all eligible residents that want to receive the vaccine to book an appointment,” he said.