More than 5,000 flock to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on first day of major COVID-19 vaccination drive
An audacious push to vaccinate 20,000 people in Alachua County a week for six weeks got off to a roaring start Monday when more than 5,200 University of Florida students and Alachua County residents received a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
On the first day anyone over age 16 in Florida became eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, a steady stream of UF students, faculty, staff and other willing participants flowed through the Champion’s Club on the fifth floor of the stadium’s SkyBox Tower, a spacious indoor area that typically houses premium seating for football spectators.
“It’s an iconic location for something that’s truly historic,” said Michael Lauzardo, M.D., MSc., deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and director of the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect program. “It’s a very big deal.”
The event is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County, which supplied the vaccines, and UF Health, which provided the personnel to administer the shots.
More than 80,000 people in Alachua County have received at least one vaccine shot as of the beginning of April, according to health department officials, but this initiative aims to spread the protection provided by the vaccines to a broader segment of the population in Alachua County.
“When you think about it, all the vaccinating we’ve done up to this point has been for people who are more vulnerable and at-risk. That’s the right thing to do, but you can’t stay there,” Lauzardo said. “Hospitalizations and deaths are down, which is exactly what we want. But now we are excited to turn our attention to the wider community.”
Immunized college students can be “dead ends” for the virus’ spread, he said, enabling them to play a key role in protecting their communities — and helping everyone return to pre-pandemic life.
“Now is the time to be a dead end,” Lauzardo said. “Even though we all don’t necessarily have the same risk of the same consequences, the way out of this is through immunity, and the safest and best way to get immunity is to get a vaccine.”
Experts from UF Health Screen, Test & Protect designed the logistics for people to receive the vaccine in as little as 15 minutes, including those who have already received a dose of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine elsewhere. Lauzardo said UF will soon be able to administer 450 doses per hour.
“We want this to be the best experience you’ve had medically,” Lauzardo said. “You come in, we take care of you and you get it done.”
Ensuring students can at least start their vaccination process before they return to their hometowns for the summer is an essential part of her team’s purpose, said Meghan Froman, M.P.H., director of testing and vaccine operations for Screen, Test & Protect.
“Just getting them here and making sure it’s easy to access – that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Kendall Siemienas, a second-year student in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the UF College of Education who was volunteering at the vaccination site on Monday, agreed that the timing is right for the vaccine drive.
“I think it’s so important right now because even though it’s during finals, a lot of us are going home for the summer. We want to make sure that we get it now when we have these vaccines available to us here,” she said. “Taking advantage of that is so important.”
Joshua Honorat, a third-year student in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering who was about to receive his first vaccine dose, echoed the sentiment.
“The main thing I took into consideration was that I need two doses,” he said. “I want to be fully vaccinated before I go home, and this was the perfect time to do so.”
Honorat said all his friends signed up to receive vaccines. He added that he was surprised at the number of available appointments times and that it took about five minutes to secure one.
Vaccinated students will not have to participate in UF’s routine COVID-19 testing or quarantine if they are a close contact of someone who tested positive for the virus, said D’Andra Mull, Ph.D., vice president for student affairs at UF. Students can receive a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in their hometowns, but they are encouraged to receive at least one dose before leaving Gainesville, she said.
“We appreciate our students pushing to get vaccinated before summer,” she said. “This is a vital step in ending the pandemic and keeping our community safe.”
Siemienas, who has already received the vaccine, said it wasn’t painful. She said she had a slight fever and minor muscle aches the following week.
“It didn’t really hurt, it was just like a regular shot,” she said. “I was a bit more tired that week, so it gave me an excuse to nap.”
“We’ve given around 80 million doses of the vaccine in the U.S. and people aren’t having reactions any more than they do with other vaccines,” he said. “People might have arm pain or a little more body-achy that night. But these vaccines work, and that’s the key thing.”
Appointments starting at 9 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Champion’s Club are available at ONE.UF.edu for all UF students, regardless of whether their accounts have holds. Alachua County residents, who can be vaccinated at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium or community sites, can sign up here.
Minors and those who need parent or guardian consent can either be accompanied by a parent or guardian or have them give verbal consent to site staff by phone with witnesses provided on-site. Free car and scooter parking is available at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Golf carts provided by the UF Athletic Association are available for transport between the stadium and parking lot.
Media contact: Ken Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-265-9408.
Learn more about UF Health's efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic at Coronavirus.UFHealth.org.