Four registered nurses at the New Port Richey Outpatient Clinic call themselves The Vaccinators – and they take that title seriously.
They take it so seriously that they continued providing Veterans with the COVID-19 vaccination even after smoke from a brush fire outside the clinic forced everyone to evacuate the building.
The Vaccinators are (above, left to right) Laura Aponte, Terese Fields, Alina Harris and Lisa Aldrich-Olavarria. They had spent most of January 26 providing COVID-19 vaccinations to Veterans at the clinic.
Sometime after lunch, they began to smell smoke.
A brush fire had started in an area of dried grass directly behind the clinic. While VA police officers were eventually able to extinguish the blaze using fire extinguishers, the clinic quickly filled with smoke, requiring the clinic to evacuate for the safety of staff and Veterans.
“What if our vaccines burn?”
“When they pulled the fire alarm, Alina and I looked at each other and started getting everything ready,” Aldrich-Olavarria said. “I told the patients to quietly go out. We grabbed the cart and went out together. I was thinking, oh my God, what if the place burns down and our vaccines burn?
Site of the fire behind the clinic that filled the building with smoke.
“Also, we didn’t want them to expire. We didn’t want to waste anything.”
The COVID-19 vaccine used at the clinic has a short shelf life after it is prepared and must be disposed of if not used within six hours. The same thoughts ran through the minds of Fields and Aponte, who were working as a team in an office right across the hall. They also grabbed the vaccines they were using and directed patients outside.
The four then made an immediate decision to ensure that no dose of the vaccine would be wasted just because of a brush fire.
Set up vaccination station in the parking lot
They worked together to set up a vaccination station in the parking lot outside the building. While they were doing that, screeners were able to retrieve chairs from the building so Veterans could wait the required 15 to 30 minutes after being vaccinated to ensure they didn’t have any adverse reactions.
“We just lined chairs up, did the physical distancing, put our cart in the middle and went around and got everybody’s information,” Fields said. “We had to keep a list of everybody we vaccinated. Then we gave a special list to the clerks to get their second appointments.”
The Veterans waiting to be vaccinated didn’t blink an eye, the nurses said.
“I’m glad nobody left,” Harris said. “Everybody stuck around. They didn’t just automatically think oh, I can’t get my shot today, I’m going home.”
“They were very happy we were still going on,” Fields added. “‘You’re still giving shots?’ they’d ask. We replied, ‘Yes, we have to get as many people vaccinated as we can.’ I think the Veterans saw we were organized, we weren’t in chaos, we weren’t panicked.
“We were very calm and we just did what nurses do,” Fields said.
Adjust and overcome
Before the building was cleared of smoke, the four nurses had vaccinated between 15 and 20 Veterans, and not a single dose was wasted. While they continued vaccinating, they also continuously coordinated with their pharmacist and leadership team to make sure everything was done safely.
The four nurses said they didn’t think they were doing anything special when they deployed the vaccination station to the parking lot.
“We adjust and overcome,” Aldrich-Olavarria said. “That’s what all nurses do everywhere, but in VA particularly.”
“At the end of the day, the Veterans got served, no vaccines were wasted and we did what we needed to do. We don’t feel we did anything special. We just did what nurses do… we just continue on.”