Vaccinators describe what it's really like to administer COVID-19 shots: 'These are the moments that you dream about'

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Aria Bendix
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covid vaccinator nyc
Nurse practitioner Maureen Laffey receives the COVID-19 vaccine from clinical trials nurse Christopher Rodriguez. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
  • Vaccinators in four states told Insider about their experiences administering coronavirus shots.

  • The process has been joyous, they said — even when lines are long or doses are in short supply.

  • They often see vaccine recipients tear up, take selfies, or start dancing.

  • Visit Business section of Insider for more stories.

As coronavirus vaccines rolled out to US healthcare workers in December, stories of dysfunction and disappointment quickly emerged. States reported receiving fewer doses than they'd anticipated, while local health departments said they didn't have the funding or staff to administer vaccines quickly enough.

But the doctors, nurses, and volunteers giving out the shots tell a different story. They've seen people cry tears of joy as they receive their first doses. Some vaccine recipients have danced around. Many take selfies.

"I've been practicing medicine for a couple of years now. This is one of the most gratifying things I've ever been able to have the privilege of doing in my career," Dr. Piyush Gupta, a volunteer at the State Farm Stadium vaccination site in Glendale, Arizona, told Insider. "You have no idea the amount of emotions that people have, how grateful they are."

In interviews with Insider, vaccinators across four states - Arizona, California, New York, and North Carolina - revealed what it has been like to administer these early coronavirus shots, an experience they said they would never forget.

Dance parties erupt at Arizona's drive-thru site

arizona vaccination card
Emily Alexander, 37, shows her COVID-19 vaccination card shortly after getting the vaccine in the parking lot of the State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, on January 11, 2021. Terry Tang/AP Photo

In early January, Dr. Cara Christ, head of the Arizona Department of Health Services, decided the pace of vaccine distribution in her state was too languid. She requested the help of the National Guard to operate a 24/7 drive-thru vaccination site at the State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

The site has administered 7,000 shots per day, on average, since January. By the end of January, more than 100,000 total doses had been given out.

Christ's efforts are being held as a model for other vaccination centers: President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took a virtual tour of site on Monday.

Dr. Gupta has been volunteering for eight-hour shifts at the stadium since the site opened on January 11. For the most part, he said, his drive-thru lane is a celebratory place.

"I bring a bluetooth speaker. People get out of the car - they start dancing with me," he said. "They give us little Hershey kisses. It's a lot of fun."

The vaccine rollout hasn't been perfect, he added: Bottlenecks at registration and check-in initially slowed the pace, and drive-thru sites can't accommodate people without cars or internet access to book appointments.

"We're not seeing a lot of minority communities actually coming through to get vaccinated," he said.

Gupta added that he also has to allay concerns about the safety of coronavirus shots.

"I've had people come in and be like, 'Oh, I've heard that this vaccine can make me sterile and not have kids,'" he said. "I thought it was a joke when I was reading it online, but people are worried about data chips being implanted in them. People are worried this is all a hoax."

But the more common experience, Gupta added, is to see people smile or cry from relief.

"I have the best job," he said.

Elderly patients shed tears of joy at North Carolina's university clinics

Margaret Weber started medical school in the middle of the pandemic, which meant she couldn't interact with patients as often as she'd expected. So when she got the opportunity to administer shots at Duke University's vaccine clinics, she jumped at it.

"Everyone's so happy to be there," Weber told Insider. "It's such a positive environment. People are taking pictures and cheering. It's a very energizing experience."

Weber typically volunteers from 7 to 11:30 a.m., before her classes start. Over the course of that shift, she's usually able to administer at least 30 to 40 shots. Recently, she said, an elderly man started dancing around the room after receiving his dose. Another vaccine recipient told her he was excited to return to the golf course.

Charlotte Smith, a first-year medical student at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, also volunteers at one of her school's vaccine clinics. She said she recently vaccinated a man in his 90s who brought his daughter along to take photos of the occasion. Another recipient wore a T-shirt with shoulder cutouts to make it easy for volunteers to administer the shot.

Vaccination Clinic
Charlotte Smith (right) vaccinates Rachael Hamm (left), a fellow student at UNC School of Medicine. Charlotte Smith

Smith volunteers two to three days per week at UNC's Friday Center, which had administered at least 10,000 first doses as of last week, though it recently had to close for two days due to a lack of vaccine supply.

"We're very careful with our vaccine allocation," Smith said. "I'm pretty sure we haven't wasted a single dose to date."

The center is currently vaccinating healthcare workers and people 65 and older.

"I've definitely seen people cry, not because of the little pinch of it going in, but definitely some older folks are really very optimistic and just kind of overwhelmed with emotion," Smith said.

New York City cancer patients prepare to see loved ones again

Allison Betof Warner
Betof Warner before her volunteer shift vaccinating staff and patients. Allison Betof Warner

Dr. Allison Betof Warner was among the first group of US healthcare workers to care for COVID-19 patients in the spring. She works at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

"I went from being a full-time academic oncologist focused on treating melanoma and coming up with new treatments for melanoma to, for a period of months, primarily focusing on treating patients with COVID," Betof Warner told Insider.

During that time, she lived apart from her husband so as not to expose him to the virus. Now she's assisting with the center's COVID-19 vaccinations for employees and cancer patients age 65 and up.

"Many have underestimated how momentous this is," Betof Warner said, adding, "I've never seen so many people happy to get a shot."

Countless patients have teared up when getting their vaccines, she said.

"So many of our patients are such high risk that they haven't seen their children, grandchildren, and loved ones in well over a year now," Betof Warner said. "The prospect of that being on the horizon, I think is really emotional for many people."

It's been emotional for her as well.

"The opportunity to really be part of the solution and be on the frontline, not only caring for these patients, but now fixing the problem and helping prevent more patients from getting COVID - this is why you go to medical school," she said. "These are the moments that you dream about."

She added, though, that many of her own loved ones are still waiting for their shots.

"My parents aren't vaccinated yet," she said. "I would love nothing more than for everyone to get it as soon as possible."

Long lines haven't quelled the excitement at Disneyland's vaccination site

disneyland coronavirus vaccines
People wait in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in a parking lot for Disneyland Resort on January 13, 2021. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Disneyland rides have been closed since March 2020. But Joyce Fang Inouye, a dentist in Irvine, California, said the theme park is once again one of the happiest places on Earth.

A mass vaccination site at Disneyland Resort has been administering Moderna shots to priority groups since January 14. Fang Inouye started volunteering at the site on February 1.

During her first 10-hour shift, she said, she administered around 80 shots. Toward the end of the day, the line began to get long, so vaccinators stayed an extra hour to accommodate those who'd been waiting.

"You can see that they were just so elated about getting the vaccine, which is basically a similar feeling that I had as well," Fang Inouye told Insider. "I don't think I've been that happy in a long time."

At the start of the pandemic, Fang Inouye's cousin, a physician living in the Philippines, died of COVID-19. The loss inspired her to work to protect others, she said.

"Obviously this is an historic, once-in-multiple-lifetimes event," she said, adding, "if I can do anything to help out - even if it's one little thing, one person administering vaccines - I'm happy to help."

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