Life in Line 6: Nabbing a Vaccine in the Big Apple
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
By Matthew Beck
I’m now a graduate of the humongous Jacob K. Javits Center vaccine machine! I received my first Covid shot on March 31 and my second one week ago, on Wednesday, April 21. If you’re unfamiliar with the Javits, it’s New York City’s convention center and it’s BIG—1.8 million square feet. I’m by no means familiar with Javits; I’ve lived in Manhattan since 2000, and these were my first and only times ever being inside. My wife took her New York State bar exam there in 2008. But I’ve walked and driven by it countless times and appreciated its dark blue glass exterior and airport terminal-like vastness.
Both times, I walked to and from my Upper West Side apartment because I haven’t taken any form of public transportation, including taxis or Ubers, since mid-March 2020. Walking south, I turned off Amsterdam Avenue at 38th Street to head west, and—useless fact alert—I learned from the parked carriages and eau de horse manure that this is where the Central Park carriage stables are.
There were no signs on or around the building itself announcing the Javits Center as a vaccination megacenter, except for a small, handwritten note inside the window of the central vehicle entry hut saying “Covid vaccine entrance up the hill”. On arrival at the southeast entrance, through countless double doors that all had signs saying PLEASE DON’T ENTER BEFORE YOUR ASSIGNED VACCINATION TIME WINDOW (which I ignored, having arrived four hours before my appointment), I swapped my jogging mask for my N95 and walked into the airy, tall atria. The Starbucks and the suburban mall standard, Panda Express, undoubtedly bustling during pre-Covid conventions, were closed. A giant screen listed Covid information and safety protocols in many languages. One of the signs said NO PICTURES BEYOND THIS POINT; otherwise, I would have photo-documented the visit.
It’s obvious from the moment you walk in that the Javits vaccination site is not a Rite Aid or Walgreens pharmacy-scale operation. I didn’t notice it during my first visit on March 31, though on April 21 there was a sign that read “WE’RE SCHEDULED TO VACCINATE 7,482 PEOPLE TODAY.” That’s scale. I chose one of eight lines, at the end of which sat a uniformed, unarmed National Guardsman. He politely checked my documentation to make sure I was scheduled for the right day and ignored that I was four hours early. He sent me into the main convention hall through a wide hallway next to the Panda Express, which now merged into two lines.
On March 31, it was the Pfizer vaccine on the left and J & J on the right. There was just one line (for Pfizer) on April 21, since J & J’s vaccine had been temporarily halted. The lines were roped off in endless switch-backs: back and forth, back and forth, forth and back, and back and forth. I was pleased that everyone was observing good distancing. When the lady in front of me eventually and cleverly tried to go under the ropes to skip a bunch of switch-backs since there weren’t others directly in front of her, a Guardsman immediately scolded her for breaking the rules. There were audible groans from the folks behind me (none from me, uncharacteristically), though everyone complied.
At the end of this maze, soldiers directed groups of ten people to five different aisles of registration desks. All had 3-foot Plexiglass partitions with bank teller-like slots at the bottom. Required: confirmation of appointment; proof of pre-appointment online questionnaire completion; driver license; proof of vaccination card (for the booster appointment). For so many people in such a cavernous room, it wasn’t that loud. But my registrar spoke so softly through the Plexiglass and I’m basically deaf amid any ambient noise. He had to repeat all his basic questions over a few times as I tried to fit my ear through the slot at the bottom of the partition. No, I haven’t had a positive Covid-19 test or knowingly been in contact with someone currently confirmed to have Covid in the past ten days; no, I haven’t travelled recently; no, I’m not prone to fainting post-vaccination; no, I’m not anemic and so on. While obviously important, the registrar’s rote delivery of the questions reminded me of airport personnel asking whether you and only you packed your bags.
I wouldn’t have minded the next labyrinth of lines had the man in front of me not navigated the entire 1.6 miles (exaggeration) at a snail’s pace. I couldn’t pass him; that wouldn’t have been kosher as it would have brought me way too close to him and I’d risk a feared Guardsman scolding. I did eventually make it to the end and had to choose to get into one of six 50-foot lanes. Mr. Snail’s Pace obviously yet inexplicably chose Line 1, which had ten people ahead of him. I chose Line 6, the furthest, because it was empty. BOOM! A meaningless victory. The next National Guardsman told me to follow the blue tape on the floor to Lane 1 for vaccination.
Each lane had two sides with eight double-desk stations staffed with a registrar on one side and a vaccinator on the other, with chairs for two vaccine recipients on the opposite long end of the tables. While the registrar rechecked all my forms and ID, the injector vaccinated the man at the other end of the table and immediately applied a band-aid. The injector dropped the alcohol swab, needle, band-aid wrappings, and latex gloves in the biohazardous waste bin under the table.
Once the registrar confirmed my registration was in good order, she asked “which arm, left or right?” I chose right for the prime shot on March 31 –I was suffering from a C5-C6 pinched nerve at the time that resulted in relentless, excruciating pain in my left arm, and even though I’m right-handed, I was afraid of post-vaccination injection site pain on top of the pinch. My epidural had set in by the time of my April 21 booster, and I was pain-free by then, so I chose my left arm that time. The injector told the registrar to note switching arms.
I’m not afraid of needles, though I opted not to watch. It was not a gentle jab; it felt more like she took a running start and stabbed the needle into my arm with all her force. At least it was a brief sprint and jab, and then I got my band-aid and was told to follow the yellow tape arrows on the floor to the post-vaccination monitoring area.
There must have been 30 rows of chairs spaced precisely 6 feet apart in all directions. I accepted a complimentary mini-bottle of Poland Spring and sat down. (I was bummed there were no peanuts or biscotti--what kind of an airline IS this?!). I checked my email; I read for a few minutes; I noticed Mr. Snail’s Pace shuffle down the line seemingly without a worry in the world. There was a string band playing modern classics such as David Arnold's “Casino Royale” (the James Bond movies theme song) and Frozen’s “Let It Go;.” The musicians wore matching green NYC vaccination T-shirts. The post-vaccination, crowd waiting to be released, clapped quietly as if for a hotel bar pianist after each song. It was a nice touch to the Covid vaccination experience.
On March 31, I was in and out of the Javits Center in under 40 minutes, including the post-vaccination waiting period. On April 21, I was in and out in under 25 minutes. So yes, it does show how impatient this New Yorker is when people walk too slowly according to him. The Javits Center mass vaccination effort is brilliantly organized and clearly keeps crowds moving along quickly. I bet it could handle more than 25,000 vaccinations per day (based on nothing other than my best guess).
Due to a small smallpox outbreak in New York City in 1947, the City vaccinated 6,350,000 people against smallpox in under one month to halt it in its tracks. This useful fact gives me hope that we, as a civilization, can stamp out SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, even if we can’t vaccinate at the same pace as in 1947. I’ve done my small part.
Matthew Beck lives with his wife and three daughters in a New York City apartment that he hasn't left often enough during the pandemic, except for a daily 12-block loop to the fruit stand and book swap at the library. He and his kids recently sprouted an avocado pit and enjoy watching it grow. Says Matt, “Internet wisdom suggests we'll grow avocados in 11 years...we've got time.”