For Merrill Garlington, the fate of normalcy waited three escalator rides above her at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The last year has been difficult for the 19-year-old UF psychology freshman, attempting a normal college experience with good times and new friends. She’s only had one in-person class in her two semesters here.
But on Monday, she'd be able to help correct the course of her and her classmates’ future by getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I'm just excited for the world to hopefully go back to close to normal,” Garlington said.
An area of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium normally designated for Gators football fans on game days became the setting for 5,056 COVID-19 vaccines Monday.
The same day Florida opened vaccine eligibility to people ages 16 and up, UF opened its landmark stadium to students, staff and faculty to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Students and student athletes were among the first in line to sight the rows of seats, vaccine administrators and readied syringes in the Champions Club at 9 a.m. Appointments ran until 9 p.m.
While the excitement may not have matched the energy that normally filled that seating area on game day, the foot-tap fidgeting and phone browsing in line showed students were ready to walk away with protection from the virus.
Prepping upper arms, poking in the needle and watching for allergic reactions made up Rohan Johnson’s first day of vaccinating against COVID-19. The 26-year-old UF PharmD senior candidate’s contributions are a slice of what volunteers, students and organization leaders do to make the vaccination process work, he said.
"Everyone’s stepping up to the plate in terms of trying to get us back to a sense of normalcy,” he said.
UF sent an email to students, faculty and staff March 30 announcing they could schedule an appointment through One.UF for a first or second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the Champions Club.
About 3,000 appointments were scheduled within the first hour of the portal opening the evening of March 30, said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, the director of UF Health’s Screen, Test & Protect program. That number increased to about 9,400 appointments made within the first 24 hours of opening.
About 20,000 people have scheduled vaccine appointments for Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. UF Health will collaborate with the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County to accommodate about 20,000 appointments a week, or about 5,000 per day, at the stadium for at least three weeks.
The two entities have worked together for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic marked a new level of partnership in contact tracing and vaccinating people on- and off-campus, Paul Myers, the administrator for the county health department, said.
About 80% of people 65 and older in Alachua County have been vaccinated as of Monday, Lauzardo said.
UF plans to start Summer B classes June 28 at regular capacity for in-person classes. As of Tuesday, it is still unclear whether social distancing or masks will be required.
“I know people are impatient and want to get back to normal,” Lauzardo said. “Just hang on for a little bit longer.”
It's unclear what percentage of the county population needs to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity , but he said eligible people should get the shot.
The university doesn’t plan to require vaccines for students, but UF President Kent Fuchs still wants to see the community get it.
“It's really up to the voluntary decisions of everyone, all the employees, all the students,” Fuchs said.
As she registered consent forms for vaccine recipients, Gabrielle Ray, a 19-year-old UF anthropology sophomore and event volunteer, said she wanted to contribute to the greater immunization effort.
Having worked the past month helping immunize older people, she said the recent eligibility expansion to college-aged people is an important moment.
“It's just really exciting how quickly everything changed,” Ray said. “Literally last week, I was writing birthdays that were in like 1930 and now it's 2000.”
Students walked through the Champions Club gates and up several escalators to get to their inoculation destination. It took about four months since the first dose was given in the U.S. to officially reach the upper arms of the university’s younger population.
“I've been anticipating (getting the vaccine) since the start of the pandemic, but I was more than happy to wait my turn in line,” Alexandra Benedit, 21-year-old UF public relations senior, said. “It was the most painless shot I’ve ever done.”
Some people were able to leave as soon as they were vaccinated. Administrators will still require people with a history of vaccine allergic reactions to be observed for 30 minutes, Lauzardo said. But the 15-minute observation for everyone else became optional because immediate reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine are even less common than the flu shot, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends these intervals for the post-vaccine process.
As students left Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after receiving their shots, volunteers offered them shirts with just two words printed next to a picture of Albert, UF’s alligator mascot: “Beat COVID.”
Andrew Girard, a 22-year-old UF forestry senior, said getting the vaccine protects his peers and his grandparents from the virus.
“Hopefully, this is the beginning of returning to normalcy,” Girard said. “This is the beginning of the end in a good way.”
Contact Manny Rea at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ReaManny.
Manny Rea is a journalism sophomore and the current health reporter for The Alligator. He worked as a copy editor in his freshman year before moving over to the Avenue in summer 2020. He likes to listen to dollar-bin records and read comics, and he is patiently waiting to go back to movies and concerts.