What it’s Like to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine at a FEMA Site

We were in and out in under 45 minutes. Parking spaces were abundant. Some people milled around on the grassy knoll near the parking lot. But others rushed a bit. I was one of those. The hustlers. I’d put my mask on before I even parked the car, and then I was out the door, clicking the key fob to lock the car doors as I worked toward the queue. My best friend, who I hadn’t seen in months because of lockdown, was waiting for me by the tents set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). We were going to go through the line together. Vaccination buddies.

A lay-flat image of a surgical mask, two vaccine syringes, and two vials labeled "VACCINE: 2019-CoV"
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on

Getting There

Driving up to the site, I was relieved to find many large signs clearly pointing the right way, and some smaller posted notices, both in English and Spanish, claiming that there would not be any immigration documentation checks at the site. I’d noticed a heavy presence of Army personnel, nurses, and police. I assumed they were there to ensure the process ran smoothly–which it did.

My friend and I joined the queue–only ten people or so waiting in line before us this brisk, sunny morning–and we were bemused at the giant queue set up that no one needed to use. Lines and lines of queue banisters, looking like they were designed to hold hundreds of people in line. I assumed that once more people were eligible for vaccination, they’d come into good use.

Getting Verified

At the first checkpoint, a nurse asked to see our IDs and verification that we was eligible for vaccination. My friend and I each produced our driver’s licenses and university identification cards naming us as faculty. “Educators?” the nurse asked, checking our identification. We nodded. Our forehead temperatures were checked, and she gestured for us to move into the first tent. Along the way, a worker standing next to a large cooler offered us water. We said thank you, but declined.

At the first tent, a worker told us a number for which station we should go to. Long tables were set up with station labels, and our wait time to get to an empty station was practically nonexistent. Workers verified our credentials more closely, ensuring our names matched between our licenses and school credentials and we were, in fact, valid candidates for vaccination. I noticed many instructions posted on the walls were given in both English and Spanish, and was glad for the excellent combination of shade and ventilation in the tent. All of the workers were wearing masks–properly. So was everyone else in the queue around us. When we passed the first verification test, we were guided to the next tent, and offered water bottles again.

Getting Signed Up

In the second tent, set up much like the first, we were asked to show our credentials again and then directed to a different set of workers–these equipped with small phone-sized tablets with styluses. These workers scanned our driver’s licenses to collect our names and birthdates. We provided our phone numbers and email addresses, which the workers typed in. The information ensured we were automatically enrolled us into getting emails and text message updates about or vaccination schedule. I thanked my worker for all she was doing, acknowledging that she probably still had a long day ahead of her, and she laughed a little before thanking me. My friend and I answered a series of liability questions. Then stickers with small QR codes and our names and birthdates were placed on our shirts, and we were told to proceed to the next tent.

Getting Vaccinated

The third tent is where the magic happens. It’s the vaccination tent. My friend and I were both sent to the same station, where we sat on sanitized chairs and spoke with our Army nurse. He scanned our shirt stickers and told us which vaccine we would be receiving (if we’d arrived earlier in the day, we may have been able to choose), and gave us our CDC cards with a sticker identifying our personal information, which dose we were getting, the location of the vaccination, and provider. It also listed the date of the follow-up appointment for our second doses. Our provider told us to come back to this site on the designated day and we would probably be fast-tracked to the vaccination tent to receive our second doses. My phone buzzed in my pocket, having received an email with the specific time window I should come back in a few weeks to get my second dose.

While we were waiting for our vaccines to come out of storage–which wasn’t a long wait at all, maybe 30 seconds–one of the Army personnel announced that it was a vaccination candidate’s 72nd birthday. We all sang to her, candidates and workers alike, robustly and off-key. I could see the corners of her eyes wrinkle into a smile.

Vaccine in hand, the provider asked me which arm I wanted it in. (He recommended the non-dominant arm). He asked me to relax my arm, which I didn’t even realize was tense, and I let it fall to my side. I felt a tiny bit of pressure–not even a pinch–and then it was over. The administration of the dose happened so quickly, my friend barely had time to snap a single photo of me getting my shot. I had the same trouble trying to get a good photo of her getting hers. The provider scanned our shirt stickers and announced, “All done!” We thanked him before proceeding to the last tent. We were again offered water.

Getting Observed

The last tent was actually two tents set up the same way–long lines of chairs, all spaced 6 feet apart–facing in the same direction. Only about a third of available chairs were occupied. A worker in the first tent we walked into checked our shirt stickers, and seeing that we were low risk, told us to proceed to the second tent. This tent was also at about a third capacity. Our shirt stickers were scanned again, and we were told to sit in a specific row for observation. For fifteen minutes, we chatted, took selfies, and patiently waited to ensure neither of us had an adverse reaction. We watched as the occupied rows ahead of us were systematically dismissed, and each chair carefully sanitized after being vacated. When our time was up, An Army personnel asked us how we were feeling, verified we were okay, and said we were good to go.

Getting Out

Leaving the final tent, we noticed a few port-a-potties and hand washing stations and a food truck. My friend and I laughed at the labyrinth of banisters we had to navigate to get back to our cars, and how it seemed that we spent more time walking between tents than actually waiting to go through the process. We parted ways, lamenting that we couldn’t give each other hugs, and noting that in a few weeks we would come back to the site to be vaccination buddies for our second doses.

I returned to my car pleased with the entire vaccination experience. FEMA set up a solid system for processing vaccinations safely and efficiently. I am not sure if this process I’ve recalled will be the same for every FEMA vaccination site, and there’s a chance in my memory I got a detail or two wrong. But it is my hope that my detailed explanation can give others an idea of what to expect, and therefore reduce the anxiety of anyone who may be apprehensive about going to a large vaccination site.

If you are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, please get it as soon as possible. The sooner we are all vaccinated, the sooner we can transition to a new normal.

For more information about COVID-19 and vaccination, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 website.

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