Published April 2021
The reality is that there are theater people playing vital roles in both mass testing and the vaccine rollout. The other reality is that the task of acquiring, transporting, scheduling, and distributing the vaccine is larger than even the most complex tour we’ve undertaken.
Let’s start with some of the logistics of getting a vaccine to a site. Collin Sherraden, currently underemployed from the Ordway audio department, is a Logistics Lead for the permanent vaccination facility at the Mall of America. Before that, he was an Incident Commander for a testing site in Fergus Falls. His job now is to get the vaccine from the shippers, make sure it is being stored properly, train in pharmacy personnel, and keep the stock of vaccines, gloves, syringes, and other necessary items flowing into the hands of the people putting shots in arms. And do all of that without wasting any of the precious vaccine.
The state allocates how many vials of vaccine go to each site. This is for both first doses and second doses – and the second dose has to be the same vaccine as the first dose. Which means that different contractors are working with different vaccines at different sites all over the state. At the Mall of America, Collin gets the Pfizer vaccine. He only has a few days between when the state allocates the next batch and when that batch arrives. Those allocations also change the number of people being vaccinated in a given day at his site. In one week, he might be planning on 1,400 vaccinations a day and on Thursday he finds out the next week their allocation is for 2,400 people each day.
When the vaccine arrives from the shipper, it is packaged in a cardboard box covered in dry ice inside another cardboard box covered in dry ice inside a Styrofoam box. Inside the layers of boxes is the tracking mechanism that Pfizer sends to make sure each box of vaccine stays at the right temperature throughout shipping. With each shipment comes shipments of dry ice to keep things ultracold both during transport and at the vaccination facilities.
Once Collin has the boxes of vaccine, they can remain in their shipping containers for up to 30 days, with dry ice replenishments. If they are removed from ultra cold, they can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days but none are staying on the shelves for anywhere near that long. Once it is out of the medical refrigerator, it has 2 hours to be diluted for delivery. Once diluted, they have six hours to get it into an arm.
If tracking all those timelines wasn’t complicated enough, Collin says that each vial contains between six and seven doses and there is no way of knowing ahead of time how many there will be. The variation is a combination of equipment – e.g. 1” vs 1.5” needles – and the variation in how it is packaged – in some lots of the vaccine the vials are a little more full, in others they are a little less full.
On a normal day, Collin only needs to call about 5 people from the on-call vaccination list. With all those moving parts, that’s the kind of efficiency theater has taught us.
Stacy McIntosh, an Equity SM with twenty-four years of experience and a second home at CTC, is now also working at the Mall of America vaccination site. Stacy’s job is to handle the people and the computers. The computer system she works with now is a twist on the one she started working with at testing sites. Assuming that the state allocates the vaccine and the transportation, storage, and preparation of the vaccine goes smoothly, there are still the complications that people bring. Stacy says that the number of appointments scheduled at the beginning of the day is not the same as the number of shots given by the end of the day.
For starters, she says that the current systems are too technology-based for the population that was the first to be vaccinated. A lot of seniors aren’t comfortable using a computer or signing up via an app. This reliance on tech led to a lot of confusion on the part of the people getting their vaccines.
As the new categories have opened up, Stacy says she’s seeing a lot more diversity of people. The people they are vaccinating now represent a wider cross-section of Minnesota, and as they work down the age groups the technology use gets easier. That doesn’t mean it’s gotten easy. The current vaccines have a very strict schedule of administration; the second dose must happen a set number of weeks after the first dose. Each vaccine has a different time window for maximum efficacy – four weeks for Moderna and three weeks for Pfizer. Though the CDC guidelines allow for some flexibility, the demand for vaccines and the need to maintain the complex scheduling leaves very little wiggle room. At the moment, most sites have a “matching date” from the day you get the first dose. Scheduling outside the matched day complicates scheduling and creates more variables for how much vaccines to dilute for use each day.
Merritt Rodriguez, an out-of-work freelance production manager and theater all-arounder, started working for a testing company in August and is now a Project Manager and Operational Lead for Primary Bio. Along with supporting the software, she is also assisting in scheduling staff. This is another point of complexity. Several different staffing agencies are hiring nurses to give the shots. Each agency has a unique contract that interacts with the nurses’ union regulations. Part of Merritt’s current job is managing each of those contracts and making sure that there are enough nurses on site to deliver the correct number of doses on any given day.
While Collin and Stacy are working at the permanent site at the Mall of America, Merritt is running pop up sites. She’ll show up and set up a vaccination site for a week. At the end of the week, they tear it down and move to a different site. Three weeks later, they are back at that first site to deliver the second doses and hoping the same number of people show up and that the vials contain the same amount of vaccine.
Theater teaches important skills and life lessons and most of them aren’t about making plays at all. As all of us who have been re-tooling our resumes can attest, it can be hard to articulate what those skills are. We use words like “flexibility,” “adaptability,” and “collaboration,” but we don’t talk about the brutal hours that are normal or the periods of isolation and intense relationships while working a show or a tour. For the people who have pivoted into this field, every one of those skills is vital.
In theater, we are always producing prototypes. No show is ever the same. For Jared Zeigler, production manager and Equity SM, creating the prototype is the first step. But even while the first draft is happening, he can step back and look at what he can tweak to make it a little more efficient or run a little smoother. That was a key skill for him while he set up a testing facility right before Christmas. Each day was a new set of problems and challenges, but each day he found ways to make things run a bit smoother or found a new solution to yet another problem.
Stacy also cites the emotional skills of theater as being paramount to her new job. Where she used to support artists in their feelings, now she supports people seeking vaccines. For her, the ability to develop a rapport is the same.
Along with building rapport with patients, Stacy points to how in theater we bounce from show to show as the same way they have been bouncing from site to site. Each site has some new faces and some old faces, but each situation is unique. Merritt describes it as reading the room and knowing where the flow of information and authority is. Finding the pulse of that flow quickly and learning to manipulate it is one of the skills we don’t name in theater.
By finding those flows of ideas and information, we build collaborations. Merritt says that her experience in theater prepared her for this job by teaching her to collaborate with people even when she didn’t know what they were doing. All the moving parts of a theatrical production from the technical, to the audience management, to the performance itself requires specific skills. Each person in that collaboration has to work within their discipline to support all the others. Merritt uses her collaborative skills now as she schedules nurses, coordinates with logistics to get supplies, and sets up software to book and track appointments for people. Stacy says it takes trust and that through this process she has learned to trust her colleagues to a new degree. “There is just too much for one person,” she says, “even if we are all leaders in the room.”
Coming from an industry that describes a week of each show as “hell week,” long hours aren’t unusual. Jared says he worked fourteen hour days for seven days before he had his first day off. Collin says his work weeks were similar as an Incident Commander but have lightened up somewhat in his current role in logistics. When she was on the road, Merritt says she was working 80 or more hours a week. She is still working 14 hour days as she bounces from pop up to pop up, but now she can sleep in her own bed.
For Collin and Merritt, the hours are what is needed to get the job done. For Jared, working those hours – running headlong into another round of burnout – is no longer worth the love of the cause. Jared left when it became clear that his employer had no intention of fully staffing the testing site and his hours would never fall near 40. Though he believes in the mission, he says he is tired of his passion being abused to grind him down and replace him with a new cog. He left the job, despite his belief, and feels strongly that he made the right choice for him.
Merritt and Collin both acknowledge that the hours are unsustainable. A tech week to get through is survivable. Month after month of travel to small towns where dinner might be out of a vending machine after a 14 hour day is a recipe for burnout. But both of them are committed to seeing the pandemic finished and the only way to do that is to vaccinate everyone. Who better to do it than a bunch of theater people?
In the arts, we believe in our work. During a show, there is a sense of camaraderie and common purpose. Together, we will build something worth creating.
When each of them took the jobs offered, they knew they would be working at some of the most high-risk places they could. Testing facilities are, by their nature, places where sick people gather. For each of them, the risk of illness was less than the need to help.
Jared says he took the job because it needed doing. Merritt says she has stayed in the job because someone needs to organize this mess and she’s good at it. Collin says he still feels a duty to continue and that it is a fun challenge. Stacy says she is contributing to ending the pandemic and that is important enough to keep doing until it is done.
But not everything is altruistic. As our industry passes one year of being shuttered, each of them also acknowledge that the paycheck was part of the appeal. The package was sweetened by not needing to re-train or go back to school and the prospect of work until the theater industry re-opens. The quantity of theater makers, live events personnel, and event producers involved in testing and vaccinations is not an accident. People who make events know how to make events; we were also the ones seeking employment when a whole new job market opened up. Hopefully when this job market shuts down, our theaters and venues will be reopening.
The drive to help and the comfort with working long hours has made theater folk particularly well-suited to this new field of emergency vaccination management. But it is the hundreds of hours of practice in collaboration, how to troubleshoot on the fly, and how to learn a brand new technology with no training that has made them excel. As Collin said, “Our audience is the people getting vaccinated. Our crew is a bunch of technicians and nurses. Our stage is a bunch of polycarbonate tables where people are either getting poked or spitting. It is just another event.”