November 16, 2021

A low hum of voices filtered across the former Fabric Depot department store, mostly empty except for its concrete floors, painted pillars and thread-worn carpet.

Guests passed through double doors papered over with “COVID-19 vaccine clinic” signs and headed to check-in tables where staff greeted them in a number of languages, but mostly, this day, in English and Spanish. 

“The process can be confusing, and people might not have all the proper information,” said Sam Aquino Pogue, dressed in a green vest that indicated he could communicate in more languages than English

Weekdays, Aquino Pogue works with kids with developmental disabilities through the Department of County Human Services. But since last winter, he has spent every Saturday at a vaccine clinic, welcoming people in English or Spanish, and answering their questions.

“People are still coming in for their very first vaccines,” Aquino Pogue said. “They might not be ready to even get their vaccine, so I like to give people information so they can make that choice. I always thank people for being here, for coming. That’s a big step.”

Saturday, Nov. 13, was Aquino Pogue’s last shift at the former Fabric Depot. After 25 weeks and 46 clinics — and 3,824 doses of vaccine — the mass vaccination site closed as the Multnomah County Health Department continues to refine its vaccination efforts, shifting to pediatric vaccines and smaller events focused on serving people from communities of color.

Unlike the early weeks of the clinic this summer — when 300 or 400 doses might be given in a day — the old Fabric Depot was quiet on Saturday. Those arriving for their first or second shot didn’t have to wait long before they were called up.

Portland firefighter Christine Pezzulo waved two people over to her table. “Hello! How are you?” she asked, with an enthusiasm that might make one assume this was her first day giving the vaccine, instead of her 11th month.

“I love doing this,” she said when her guests had moved to the observation area, where they had to wait 15 minutes after receiving their shots. “I wanted to be part of the solution, part of the community. And to keep people safe and healthy.”

Pezzulo has been a first responder for 27 years and never expected this would be part of her job; but, then, emergencies rarely warn of their coming. Across the table, Terra Vandewiele, who has been a firefighter for eight years, smiled from beneath her mask. 

“I like to think, when I look back on my career, 50 years from now, I’ll be able to say I was out there giving people vaccines,” Vanderwiele said.

Rachel Jones, center, huddles with her team on the last day of the Fabric Depot vaccine clinic

Both firefighters will transition to the County’s pediatric vaccine clinics, which will be hosted through three Multnomah County WIC locations. Vandewiele is already considering which fun stickers and bandages she’ll present to the kids.

In the middle of the vast hall, site coordinator Rachel Jones leaned one elbow on a table, pausing between her laps around the clinic, shepherding guests through the process and directing light-hearted jokes at the two dozen staff and volunteers who have grown so close.

It hasn’t been calm or easy to stand up a mass vaccination site, especially when demand was so crushing early on, all while simultaneously hiring and training new staff and volunteers, establishing expectations, offering incentives, and developing protocols for how to respond when things go wrong.

Sometimes, the staff would be exhausted, or the guests might have felt frustrated. But the last clinic on Saturday provided a rare lunchtime break for the team to laugh and recognize all they had accomplished.

“We built a bond. We’re a family,” program coordinator Karen Alexander said as she pulled foil off heavy trays of homemade mac and cheese, fried chicken, and potato salad. “The camaraderie of being able to share a meal together is important.”

The vaccine clinic staff were joined Saturday by Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, County Chief Operating Officer Serena Cruz, Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines and Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey.

The health leaders, wearing face coverings as they came together in person for the first time in many months, greeted staff and volunteers and one another with shouts and hugs.

“This was a big deal to stand up, and I’m proud and humbled by their commitment,” Guernsey said. “This space was really perfect when we had hundreds of people to vaccinate every day. Now we’re pivoting to smaller clinics and more targeted work, to focus on pediatric clinics and pockets of our community that are harder to reach.”

Guernsey spotted volunteer Jill Daniels, a nurse and former director of student health centers. “Get out! Get Out!” she shouted before pulling Daniels in for a hug.

Vines in turn greeted and hugged her colleagues, reflecting on how far they had come.

Karen Alexander, right, with Meah Kacirek and Ernesto Dominguez share a meal before the Fabric Depot vaccine site closes.

“This is a huge milestone today,” she said. “I think of the chapters in the pandemic — back to December and January when we were asking ourselves how we were going to get vaccines to all the people who wanted it. We’re not done, but it feels like we’re at a point of transition.”

Jazmine Bowles, who has led much of the public health vaccine work for Multnomah County, stopped by with her son, M.J., on their way to his basketball practice. On the drive over, she said, they talked about how to balance her pressing work demands with his sports. He said he’s proud of his mom’s dedication, and doesn’t hesitate to tell people at school that she’s a pretty important person.

Bowles laughed at his description, a moment of ease after so many months of intensity. The work has been rough — long, hard and stressful.

“It hasn’t been a smooth process, but I think about how many clinics we have held, how many people we have served,” she said. “Now we get to focus on building infrastructure, to figure out how to work in this new normal. We’re moving the work forward.”

At a time when so many healthcare and public health employees across the nation are feeling burned out and reaching their own professional turning points, Bowles said she’s just getting started. 

“I’m invested in this work,” she said. “I’m here for the long haul.”

As the food was laid out and cakes unboxed, the staff and volunteers gathered for a group photo and a few words of thanks. 

“I just wanted to tell you how proud I am, how honored,” Vines said. “We are all in your debt. Thank you for your work.”

Commissioner Vega Pederson, who represents the district around the Fabric Depot and lives nearby, added her own appreciation for the staff and volunteers who served at this low-barrier clinic in the heart of Mid-County.

“Thank you for the work you have done to get this community vaccinated,” she said. “We needed to have this, we needed to have it here. This community faces challenges, and this makes a difference.”