Nurses at the Southwest Tennessee Community College Whitehaven Center vaccination site pose for a group photo on the last day of the clinic. Over five months, nurses administered more than 38,500 shots at the Whitehaven site. Photo by Hannah Grabenstein for MLK50

Through snow, rain, heat and humidity, the nurses at the Whitehaven vaccination clinic diligently delivered shots. More than two dozen women, some back in the profession after retirement, have served the community for five months – at first five days a week, then down to three. 

On Friday, their last day, some nurses said they were sad to see the clinic at Southwest Tennessee Community College’s Whitehaven Center close but were grateful they could be part of the historic COVID-19 vaccination program.

“(It) just feels like family,” said Rita Johnson, a nurse who’s the unofficial medical head at the site. “We come in every day, we do our job and we go home. We have fun in doing it,” she said.

“It’s such a rewarding thing to give a vaccine and somebody says, ‘Thank you.’ I mean, it just warms your soul.”

Except for the Pipkin Building in Midtown, which has become the city’s main vaccination hub, Whitehaven is the last of the community drive-through vaccination sites to close in Memphis.

Although 58% of Shelby County is still without a single shot, Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen said Thursday that people are now largely choosing to get vaccinations at pharmacies and doctors’ offices. More than 384,000 people in Shelby County have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

The community college site mainly serves Whitehaven, which is overwhelmingly Black. The two ZIP codes in the area, 38116 and 38109, are 93 and 97% Black, according to Census Bureau data. With 33% and 34% of their residents vaccinated, they’re also among the lower uptake ZIP codes in the county, though they’re not the lowest (that ZIP code is 38127 in North Memphis, which is 24% vaccinated).

Vaccine demand slows to a trickle

Gianna Walker (left) and Tamara Neely received their vaccinations at the Whitehaven site on Friday. The mother and daughter decided to “do it together.” Photo by Hannah Grabenstein for MLK50

Since February, nurses have delivered more than 38,500 shots in Whitehaven, said site manager Verneta Boone, also director of the Whitehaven Center. By late Friday, they’d administered 53 shots.

On Friday, mother and daughter pair Tamara Neely, 45, and Gianna Walker, 22, came to get vaccinated. It was Neely’s second dose and Walker’s first.

Both wanted vaccinations to feel safer at work – Neely works in a cafeteria around children and Walker is hoping a job with the Internal Revenue Service will come through. Plus, Neely said, she’s going on vacation to Cancun soon. 

They both live in Whitehaven, so the site was convenient for them. There was “no particular reason” they waited until June to get vaccinated, Walker said. But on Friday, they just decided “to do it together,” Neely added.

It was quick, easy and painless, they agreed. Staff gave Walker a card so she’ll know where to go for her second shot in three weeks since the Whitehaven site will be closed.

The Pipkin site is set to close at the end of July, after which the city will have at least one walk-in community clinic open through September, possibly at the Memphis Office of Emergency Management, McGowen said at the final scheduled pandemic press briefing. The city will continue to run community pop-up vaccination clinics, he said. 

Nurses prepare to administer a vaccine at the Whitehaven community site. Since April, demand across the county has been declining. Photo by Hannah Grabenstein for MLK50

Over the last few months, vaccination demand has slowed to a trickle at the mass sites, officials have said during press briefings. There were seven sites in total, though they were open for varying lengths of time. On Thursday, the drive-up site in Germantown shut down. 

Vaccinations in Shelby County reached a peak around April 1 and have been declining since then, according to county data. 

Boone said the Whitehaven site demand mirrored the city’s. But she believes demand really started to weaken after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration recommended a pause on delivering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. A small number of people have developed very rare blood clots after receiving the vaccine. Though the CDC and FDA lifted the pause 11 days later, Boone said she could tell people’s faith had been shaken.

“We dropped down from 900 a day to one,” she said. People would drive up to the clinic entrance, ask what shot was being delivered and leave when they found out it was Johnson & Johnson. Even though they only had three days of the single-dose shot before returning to Pfizer, Boone said demand stayed relatively low.

The Pipkin Building has anchored the vaccination program, which was initially run by Shelby County. The City of Memphis took over after the state alleged the county mismanaged vaccines. Pipkin opened in mid-January and was followed a little over three weeks later by the site in Whitehaven. 

It was a collaboration between the Shelby County Health Department and the college, Boone said. Over the past few months she’s managed both the vaccinations and the college, which has meant long hours and no days off. But she was proud to serve the community, which she’d noticed had high rates of hesitancy. 

Boone called community leaders to encourage vaccines, she said. Though the site initially saw a mix of Whitehaven residents and people from other communities, Boone said she was glad to vaccinate anyone who wanted a shot.

At its height, the site vaccinated 600 to 1,000 people a day, Johnson said. It was also the only site to open during a winter snowstorm in February when demand was still high, Boone said, and nurses vaccinated more than 900 people each day that weekend. Nurses regularly showed up between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. and left at 7:30 at night when people came in droves, Johnson said.

A largely successful campaign

In April, the Federal Emergency Management Agency selected the Pipkin site to run as a Community Vaccination Center. The goal was to administer 21,000 vaccinations a week, but by then, demand in Memphis had slackened. 

That FEMA wasn’t able to administer as many vaccines as they had the capacity for was disappointing to McGowen, though he called the community vaccination program largely successful.

“The only regret I have is that when we had the federally-assisted vaccination effort, that would have given us fully 3,000 additional vaccines a day over at the Pipkin Building, that we didn’t max that out. I still had significant capacity that we didn’t use, and it’s unfortunate that the demand fell off a little bit,” he said.

Still, McGowen said overall he’s been pleased with the city’s effort. 

“I believe we reached everybody who wanted to have a vaccine, and (were) able to get one in a timely fashion and conveniently to them. I believe that we unearthed almost every strategy that we can think of to get people who were undecided to get a vaccine. … So given all that, I feel very good about where we are as a community,” McGowen said.

The county stumbled at the outset of the vaccination campaign when their system inherently prioritized internet-users over those without internet, who tended to be older, poorer and Black. 

In Whitehaven on Friday, nurses said they wished the site would continue since so many people remain unvaccinated. But they’ve been happy to do the work for as long as they have.

Johnson, who came out of retirement to help, said she was excited about the work she got to do, even as the site closes. 

“To me, it means that we have done what we were called to do.”