Share on Pinterest
Matt Terry, San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District captain (right), administers a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Healthline news editor David Mills. Photography courtesy of Mary Mills

Matt Terry, captain of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, has to drive an hour and a half to get to the COVID-19 vaccination clinic, where he puts in an 8-hour day.

It’s a long slog, but on Thursday morning he got his reward.

Terry was about to inoculate a woman in her late 70s with the Moderna vaccine when she began to cry.

Terry asked her what was wrong. The woman explained that she had not seen her son or grandchildren in Utah since the COVID-19 pandemic began a year ago.

On Thursday night, she planned to book airline tickets to see her family six weeks from now. That’ll be after she’s received her second dose and the vaccine has had enough time to fortify her immune system.

“That was it for me,” Terry told Healthline. “That made it all worth it.”

On Thursday afternoon, I was one of the people over the age of 65 who Terry vaccinated at a clinic administered by the fire district in this suburb east of San Francisco.

My two daughters and five grandchildren live nearby, so I have been able to see them at times during the past year.

Nonetheless, I feel as if I can breathe easier knowing the vaccine is inside me, using its mRNA technique to build up antibodies to fight the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

I’m now one of only 4 percent of people in the United States who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

That has caused me to have a wave of gratitude on a number of levels.

First, I feel fortunate that I was able to receive a vaccination during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the day I was vaccinated, more than 190,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with COVID-19, and 4,142 people died from the disease. Nearly 122,000 people are also in the hospital being treated for the illness.

I also am grateful to be in a state that has at least a minimal supply of vaccine.

Many states are facing shortages. New York City officials expect to run out of doses before the weekend. My sister is a teacher in upstate New York, and the earliest appointment she can secure right now is April 9.

I am also grateful to the scientists who developed the vaccine, the delivery personnel who have flown and trucked it across the country, and the fire personnel like Terry, as well as healthcare workers across the nation who are administering the doses.

Finally, I am grateful for how an empty appointment slot fell into my lap this week.

Like many older adults, I was delighted when it was announced this month that COVID-19 vaccination eligibility was being expanded to people 65 years and older.

At 66 years of age, my wife, Mary, and I both fall into the new category.

We immediately filled out applications on the Contra Costa County Health Services Department website for their senior vaccination clinics. We were told we’d hear about scheduling soon.

We also received an email from John Muir Health, our medical network, which informed us that they expect to contact us about scheduling by mid-February.

We were fine with waiting a few weeks.

Then, Mary got a text on Monday from a former teaching colleague, Patti Fama, who told us about the senior clinics being run by the San Ramon Valley Fire District. She and her husband had made appointments for the next day.

We immediately went to the site.

Because Mary is a cancer survivor, I filled out her application first. There were 15 slots available for the fire district’s Sunday clinic. We grabbed one.

However, in the 1 minute it took me to fill out my application, the remaining slots had disappeared.

Over the next two days, I checked every few hours to see if a slot had opened up at the Thursday or Sunday clinics due to a cancellation or rescheduling.

It seemed like a remote chance until I logged in at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday.

To my surprise, a slot had opened up at 2:29 p.m. Thursday.

It took me 5 seconds to click on that circle and then hit “save.” I immediately received a confirmation of the appointment.

I was in!

The Thursday clinic was moved from a nearby middle school to a parking garage in the Bishop Ranch office park in San Ramon.

The reason was simple.

The county had given the fire district 800 vaccine doses for Thursday, compared to the 600 they had on Tuesday.

They needed a bigger facility, and the normally full parking garage is pretty empty because few people are working in the office buildings that surround it due to the pandemic.

Mary and I arrived at the parking structure a half-hour early.

We were met with a well-organized team.

A firefighter outside the parking garage checked me in.

From there, we followed other vehicles to the second floor of the garage, where other fire personnel directed us to a parking spot. Cars were already sitting in every other space.

We were told to turn off our car engine, presumably to keep the parking garage from becoming inundated with carbon monoxide.

Another firefighter stopped by to register us.

A few minutes later, Terry arrived with a cart full of the precious vaccine.

As we talked, he poked my left arm with the needle and that was it. The jab was no different than a flu shot and was just as easy.

He told me to wait 15 minutes to make sure I didn’t have any sort of allergic reaction. If side effects did emerge, I was instructed to honk my horn and one of the paramedics in the garage would come over.

After the waiting period passed, we drove to the parking garage exit, where I was given my official immunization card.

From there, we headed home.

On Friday morning, my arm was mildly sore, but otherwise I felt fine.

In two weeks, I’ll receive an email giving me options to schedule my second dose 28 or so days after the initial shot.

These local clinics are happening because of the commitment and desire of the San Ramon Valley Fire District.

Fire Chief Paige Meyer said he contacted county officials in December and offered up his paramedics and other fire personnel to help administer the COVID-19 vaccine.

The county initially provided the fire district with 250 to 300 doses for each day.

They began by vaccinating fire departments across the county as well as some healthcare workers.

Meyer said that when county officials saw these clinics’ success, they began increasing the number of doses allocated.

The fire district has now expanded to three clinics a week. Law enforcement officials, as well as people 65 years and older, are now included.

So far, more than 3,000 people have been inoculated, and Meyer hopes to increase the clinics to 1,000 people a day.

The clinics will soon start administering second doses, but Meyer hopes to continue to provide first doses alongside the return visitors.

It all depends on how many vaccine vials the county is willing to give them.

“Our job in the fire district is to save lives,” Meyer told Healthline. “We will do this until the cows come home.”

Meyer has used fire district personnel who are injured and can’t work at the fire station as well as people who had their academy training interrupted due to the pandemic.

Those folks were already being paid.

However, Meyer is also paying fire district personnel overtime to work at the clinics on their days off.

There’s no guarantee that the district will be reimbursed for these costs, but that doesn’t concern Meyer.

“I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “My overtime budget is going to be big, but I’m doing this to help get our community get back to normal.”

Meyer said his employees feel honored to do this work.

“We have a moment in history to have an impact,” he said.

Meyer hopes other agencies will follow his district’s example.

“It’s time to mask up and get to work,” he said. “It’s time to step up.”

It’s pretty clear the country’s vaccination program is behind schedule.

Programs such as President Joe Biden’s 100 million doses in 100 days can certainly help.

This is particularly vital as reports come in about new coronavirus variants that the vaccine may or may not be able to fend off.

It’s also important for people like me who’ve received the vaccine to remain vigilant.

The inoculations do not prevent you from contracting the virus. It significantly lowers your risk of developing COVID-19 and becoming seriously ill.

When enough of the country’s population is vaccinated, then things may be able to be relaxed. That, however, may not happen until fall or even later.

So, for now, I plan to keep wearing a mask and maintain proper physical distance when I’m in public places — even with the vaccine building up my immune system.