At Santa Cruz County’s primary vaccination site this week, patients signed forms outside the City of Nogales Recreation Center and headed into the gym, where a basketball court has been turned into a vaccination station serving thousands of local residents.
A few miles north at the Rio Rico Pharmacy, the county’s only vaccination site outside of Nogales, a lower-key vaccination scene was playing out on Wednesday morning.
Inside the pharmacy, in a modestly labelled building next to a row of gas pumps on West Frontage Road, an assistant passed out consent forms to a handful of local residents, most middle-aged or older. One by one, they were beckoned back to an impromptu vaccination area – a chair set up next to a countertop in the hallway between the store and the back room. There, they rolled up their sleeves and received a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine delivered by longtime pharmacy owner Joe Coil.
“It feels good, because I can help,” Coil said.
He estimated that he’s vaccinated about 1,000 local residents since the start of the pandemic. Most of those have received the Moderna vaccine, but 200 have been given the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
Unlike the county government’s vaccination system, which requires residents to pre-register through an online form or by calling in, and then wait for a call from the health department to set an appointment, the process at Rio Rico Pharmacy is relatively informal.
Coil said county officials told him to focus on vaccinating older people, so he’s called up some of his elderly customers to set appointments, always encouraging them to bring other friends and family members that qualify for vaccination in the older age groups.
In other cases, he talks to older customers about the vaccine when they come by the store for other purchases or prescriptions.
“When there’s computers involved and that happening, people who are 75… it’s just hard,” Coil said. “When you have person-to-person, it’s easy.”
Not necessarily scalable
For a few days this week, the Rio Rico Pharmacy turned to a first-come, first-served system between 8 and 9 a.m. for eligible vaccine recipients. Coil said that made things easier for him, since some people who’d made appointments never showed up, leaving him scrambling to find eligible recipients before opened doses were spoiled.
In addition to the county’s vaccination system, Walgreens in Nogales is also offering the COVID-19 shot through a federal vaccine distribution program. To get a shot at Walgreens, residents need to make an account and sign up for an appointment through an online portal.
Jeff Terrell, director of the County Health Services Department, said that Coil’s system sounded sensible for a community-oriented business, but would be hard to replicate at the scale of the county’s vaccination program.
“Neighborhood pharmacy… they’re going to know the people one-on-one and they’re going to have that rapport,” Terrell said. “So I can see that working in that instance.”
Coil added that he has another secret to the success of his vaccination program: saying a prayer before each shot.
“They don’t know that I’m doing it, but in my mind I’m praying for everything to be good, for God’s will to be done,” he said.