n a normal weekday, Hillcrest High School in Queens, New York, would be filled with students congregating in the hallways and attending classes. But the school has instead faced a pandemic transformation, becoming one of the latest vaccination pop-ups to open up across New York City.
When eligible residents arrive on the site, which officially opened on Sunday, they are asked to confirm their online appointment with a staff member before they are guided along a stickered path through the hallways of the high school.
In the gymnasium – previously used by the school to host assemblies and basketball games – rows of small tables with healthcare professionals fill the room, each spaced from the other in an effort to promote social distancing.
New Yorkers, all of whom are required to wear masks, are guided to a specific table where a healthcare worker donned in a gown and face shield is waiting with a Moderna Covid-19 vaccine to administer to them.
Following the inoculation, the recipient then follows a stickered path to a smaller room where chairs are spaced apart from each other. There, people are asked to wait 15 minutes to ensure they are experiencing no adverse reactions from the vaccine. Once the 15 minutes are up, residents are free to leave the centre with their vaccination card in hand, stating when they can receive their second dose.
This location in Queens, New York, is one of the latest the city has opened in an effort to increase the number of vaccines distributed to residents each day.
The site, with the assistance of two other locations, anticipates it will be able to vaccinate a combined 5,000 to 7,000 per day, at a time when Mayor Bill de Blasio has set the lofty goal of inoculating one million New Yorkers by the end of January. As of Wednesday morning, 237,991 residents have received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state would expand the eligibility criteria to receive the vaccine after reports surfaced of hospitals throwing out doses because they were unable to find someone to have the jab. Mr Cuomo blamed poor management on the hospitals for slow vaccine distribution, but local officials like Mr de Blasio said the eligibility guidelines were too narrow.
Now those eligible to receive the vaccine – outside of healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities – include individuals 75 years and older, first responders, teachers, other school staff, transit workers, and individuals living and working in homeless shelters.
Diane Nikkolos, a teacher from Astoria, jumped at the chance to receive the coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday after eligibility opened to her.
“I want to get back in the classroom as soon as possible and not worry about my students getting me sick,” said Ms Nikkolos, who is over the age of 65. “Our school’s classrooms are so small and overcrowded that it’s very difficult to ventilate.”
In total, Ms Nikkolos spent just over 30 minutes at the vaccination centre from start to finish.
She described the process as “organised” and raved about the nurse who administered the vaccine for her. “This woman was as smooth as glass,” she said. “Probably one of the best nurses around.”
Her experience was echoed by others who arrived at the high school on Tuesday to receive their first dose of the vaccine.
Tonia Donato, 46, and Jaclyn Rapp, 38, are two teachers in Queens who arrived at the site together.
“I got the vaccine because I believe in science and I trust doctors,” Ms Donato said, adding that she hoped this would be the next step to life returning to normal.
Ms Rapp also cited a desire for life to return to normal as a driving factor in receiving the vaccine, but protecting those around her was another priority. “I want to be a part of the solution,” she said, “and I want to protect my parents.”
The hardest part of the process for the teachers was figuring out how to schedule their first appointment to receive a vaccine dose. But once they had an appointment and arrived at the centre, it was a smooth process with no waiting – a pleasant surprise given they heard from colleagues that other vaccine sites in the city were overcrowded.
“They couldn’t have done better here,” Ms Rapp said about the centre. “We didn’t wait, everyone was really nice, just went right in and got our shot.”
Shaukat Choudhury, 76, a retired businessman living in Queens, avoided any problems with making an online appointment because his son did it for him. “My son, he’s a physician, he called me and said, ‘Dad, you’re lucky. You can go in,’” Mr Choudhury said, and after that conversation an appointment was made.
Mr Choudhury said he was impressed by the vaccine process, calling it “very smooth” each step of the way.
“I didn’t think it would be chaotic but I thought it would be more waiting,” he said. “Not at all. Smooth as can be.”
Pressure has increased across the United States to get more people vaccinated quicker, specifically because a new Covid-19 variant strain from the United Kingdom was detected in states across the country. Vaccine companies said there was no indication yet that the treatments would be less effective against the mutant variant, but researchers said it could be 50 per cent more contagious than the initial variant that originated in Wuhan, China, one year ago.
Last year, experts with Operation Warp Speed estimated 20 million Americans would receive the first dose by the end of 2020. But just over 9.3 million Americans had received the jab as of Tuesday, according to a CDC vaccine tracker, falling far short of the initial goal.
The Trump administration announced on Monday it was changing recommendations for who should currently receive the Covid-19 vaccine. Now, those 65 years and older or with underlying health conditions were also recommended to receive the vaccine.
But some states, like New York, have yet to widen eligibility to what the Trump administration recommends.
President-elect Joe Biden will take office next week, meaning the country could see an alteration to how it responds to the virus. New Yorkers at the city’s vaccine hub expressed confidence that these coming months will be a turning point in the pandemic, with a new administration and more people receiving the vaccine.
“This new administration will give us the impetus we need to go forward,” Mr Choudhury said. “Joe Biden and his experience of 40-plus years will put us on the track.”
Five new vaccination centres opened in New York City on Sunday: Brooklyn Army Terminal and Bathgate Contract Postal Station, which operate as 24/7 mass inoculation sites, and Hillcrest High School, South Bronx Educational Campus, and the Bushwick Educational Campus in Brooklyn, which operate as smaller vaccine hubs.
These smaller locations are open seven days per week, 10 hours each day, and add to the 125 sites total offering vaccinations in the five boroughs of the city.
For New Yorkers, these new locations have brought a renewed hope that the city could be turning a corner on the novel virus as more and more people receive the vaccine.
“Science is winning,” Ms Donato said.