MINNEAPOLIS – Chris Runyon paused for a moment to catch her breath as she lugged a high-tech cooler and 20 pounds of medical supplies through an empty gymnasium.
It was late on a Friday afternoon and Runyon, a 71-year-old public health nurse, had just finished a community vaccination clinic in south Minneapolis and was racing against the clock. Minutes earlier, she had punctured the seal on a vial of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, and now had just six hours to inject the vaccines into arms before the doses expired and had to be thrown out.
Frantic, Runyon made a flurry of calls to relatives and acquaintances, directing them to the home in St. Paul where she was babysitting her infant granddaughter that evening. By 6 p.m., people began arriving at her doorstep ready for the shots. With only a couple of hours to spare, Runyon gave the last dose to a middle-aged stranger in the middle of a kitchen with medical supplies spread over a counter.
"It's like we're all on the Titanic and trying to get everyone we can on the lifeboats as fast as we possibly can," said Runyon, who works for Hennepin Healthcare.
Runyon is among hundreds of Minnesotans with medical backgrounds who have stepped forward to administer vaccines as the state ramps up efforts to get as many people as possible inoculated against the coronavirus. As the vaccine supply has increased, so has the demand for people to deliver the shots. Since January, nearly 850 Minnesota healthcare professionals — from pharmacists and paramedics to optometrists and veterinarians — have volunteered to become COVID-19 vaccinators through a program with the state Department of Health, officials said.
For many, administering the vaccine has become a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save lives and spread hope after a year of despair. Nurses who months ago were traumatized by watching people die from COVID-19 are now experiencing relief and joy. For their efforts, they are rewarded with tears of gratitude, celebratory fist bumps and the flashing of smartphone cameras as people seek to capture the moment for their families and social media.
"You can feel the joy," Runyon said after a long day of giving shots to restaurant and hotel workers at a union hall in Minneapolis. "People truly feel like their lives have opened up after the shots."
Yet plunging needles into strangers' bare arms, day after day, is a daunting task.
First, there is the challenge of getting the right amount of doses to each community vaccination site with all the necessary supplies — multiple syringes, alcohol wipes, bandages, cotton balls, sharps containers and piles of vaccination cards. Then there is the delicate process of sliding the needles into thimble-sized vials of vaccine without contaminating the doses. And the hours of repetitive jabbing and pulling up shirtsleeves can wear on the joints — many vaccinators do stretching exercises to maintain dexterity in their hands.
But even with meticulous planning, things can go awry.