INDIANAPOLIS – If the hundreds of local health department and pharmacy locations statewide are the pistons in Indiana's COVID-19 vaccination effort, Indianapolis Motor Speedway's mass vax clinic is the shiny chrome on the car.
Welcoming thousands of Hoosiers to the famed Gasoline Alley garages each day it is open, those running the initiative have seen it all – including wedding dresses, emotional support pups, pajamas and hot rods.
And now they are seeing a dip in numbers – even opening up to walk-ins ... well, drive-ins.
“We'll do 'em if they crawl in,” said Mary Kay Foster, co-leader on Indiana University Health's mass vaccination program in her Monday morning speech to staff on the front lines.
She encouraged the dozens of workers to adapt a “pit crew mentality” and “keep cars moving and keep them happy.”
But always remember to make sure the car is in park.
Foster's enthusiasm was infectious as she patrolled the bays in her golf cart moments before the gates opened.
“Bay 20 – are you ready?” Cheers of yes!
“Bay 21 – are you ready?” Whoot whoot!
Only Bay 11 had a small glitch connecting to the system but was ready when cars were let in.
“We are really invested in this,” Foster said – noting there are translators on site if needed; safety checks in place for allergies and possible fainting; and a pharmacist on hand if someone wants to talk more in-depth about the vaccines.
It's generally a happy place to be – watching people figuratively get their lives back. So far, more than 61,000 doses have been given at the speedway, and sometimes there are happy tears.
“We want to be able to travel and move around safely,” said Fola Olusola, a 37-year-old from Indianapolis getting the vaccine Monday. “It is going to give me peace of mind.”
But it's not just central Indiana residents coming in. Hundreds to thousands have driven in from north to south, east to west. Some even came in buses or with their whole families for a day trip.
Fort Wayne resident Aaron Robertson, 26, drove to the speedway several weekends ago.
“I was intrigued with it being at IMS. I had never visited there, so it gave me a great excuse to see the speedway for the first time,” he said. “It was very, very cool.”
He watched the Indy 500 on television when growing up in Texas but wasn't ready for the sheer size of the track.
“Massive!” Robertson said. “And it was very efficient.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the state's first mass vaccination site in March, when the Indiana State Department of Health ran it. Those four days saw more than 16,000 Hoosiers get vaccinated.
Now, IU Health is running the site – along with the state, the Indiana National Guard and IMS personnel. At the highest volume, they were using 20 garage bays. But now the operation is down to 10 or 12. Likewise, maximum staffing was about 250, but that has dropped.
The clinic can administer about 6,000 doses a day but averaged 3,000 a day this past weekend. The no-show rate has risen from initially less than 10% to between 30% to 40%. Part of this is due to the pause of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine – it is now available again – as well as people getting earlier vaccine appointments elsewhere.
“Nationally, the demand is loosening,” said Kristen Kelley, IU Health's director of infection prevention. “That's a disappointment. Knowing we have 2 million to go in Indiana and seeing it dwindle.”
She added “it feels like a race” against the resurgence of cases – led by variant strains of COVID-19.
On this Monday, when people arrived they had the choice between the one-dose J&J or two-dose Pfizer shots. If someone chose Pfizer, a staffer radioed to the National Guard who hustle down with a dose from another bay, where it is kept cold.
That's what Olusola chose, saying Pfizer has been around the longest and has a good track record.
“It's what I felt comfortable with,” he said.
Wilson Whicker, 19, would have preferred the one-dose vaccine but got caught during the pause on the J&J medication, so he got the Pfizer shot. The IUPUI student from Uniondale in Wells County will get his second dose in northeast Indiana when he moves back home in two weeks.
“I saw you didn't need an appointment and just went,” he said about Monday's mass vaccination clinic. “It took 20 minutes. I had never seen the infield or the garages, so that was pretty neat.”
At a glance
Fully vaccinated residents by county:
Adams: 7,512 (29.2%)
Allen: 94,180 (32.1%)
DeKalb: 9,034 (26.4%)
Huntington: 9,805 (33.2%)
Kosciusko: 15,834 (25.2%)
LaGrange: 5,394 (19.1%)
Noble: 9,452 (25.2%)
Steuben: 10,024 (35.2%)
Wabash: 7,413 (29.1%)
Wells: 6,300 (28.4%)
Whitley: 8,285 (30.5%)
Source Indiana Department of Health