Written by Nancy Sokoler Steiner
Olga Farah grew increasingly frustrated. She needed to find a place that
would vaccinate her adult son, Alex. But Alex has severe developmental
disabilities and the mental capacity of an infant. He simply could not
keep a mask on. Every vaccine site Farah contacted refused to take someone
without a mask.
She kept trying. When Farah reached Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s
vaccine hotline, she learned the hospital was just launching a program
in collaboration with the Torrance Fire Department. The program would
take vaccines to medically frail community members who were most at risk
for COVID-19 and unable to travel to vaccine sites.
Days later, a fire truck arrived at the Farah residence. Torrance firefighters
asked vaccine screening questions, administered the vaccine and stayed
afterward to make sure Alex had no adverse reaction.
“They were heaven-sent,” says Farah. “I spent 14 months
as a prisoner at home. It wasn’t just to protect my health but because
I was so worried about Alex getting COVID-19. When he gets a cold, it
can last two to three months. I knew if I brought the virus home, it would
probably kill him.”
Making It Possible
Alex’s vaccination came about thanks to a laborious behind-the-scenes
process undertaken by Torrance Memorial and the Torrance Fire Department.
“The hardest part was finding and reaching those most in need,”
says senior care pharmacist Mei Tsai, who spearheaded the medical center’s
She and her team reached out to those on a list provided by the L.A. County
Department of Health Services. They also contacted home health organizations,
physicians’ offices and the regional center to identify other potential
candidates. The fire department contacted Meals on Wheels and the Bartlett
Senior Center and created a homebound vaccine hotline.
Health education manager Catherine Hargrove and her team then registered
patients who had been identified, verifying eligibility and noting any
special needs. This way the fire crew would be prepared for situations
ranging from knowing which patients to monitor for allergic reactions
to having gate codes necessary to enter apartment buildings.
Vaccination day logistics needed to be smooth and efficient since vaccines
require administering within six hours. Assistant director of pharmacy
Tammy Ginder sorted patients geographically and created a map and route
for the fire department teams to follow.
On vaccination day, two teams set out to vaccinate six patients each—armed
with the map, coolers equipped to keep the vaccines at proper temperatures
(between 2º and 25º, depending on the manufacturer) and digital
trackers that monitored cooler temperatures. Before every outing, Tsai
or another pharmacist briefed fire department personnel on cooler and
syringe instructions and patient special needs. They also debriefed the
teams afterward and handled the processing of all paperwork.
The homebound vaccine program launched on March 26 and delivered 145 vaccinations
through the end of April. Because brushfire season starts in May, the
Torrance Fire Department stepped back at that point and Torrance Memorial
took over the process of delivering vaccines in Torrance and neighboring
“This was a heartfelt effort with a lot of groups making it possible:
Home Health, the Transitional Care Unit, our team of pharmacists, and
our managers and leaders,” says Tsai. “I couldn’t be
prouder to work at Torrance Memorial, which supports keeping the community’s
most frail residents safe and healthy.”
“Firefighters have seen a lot, but this was different,” says
deputy chief Jon Henderson, who coordinated the strategic planning and
logistics for the Torrance Fire Department. (Fire captain Duane Sweeton
ran the day-to-day operations once the program was underway.) “There
were a lot of tears shed not only by the patients but by the firefighters
as well,” Henderson recalls about vaccine recipients reacting to
the prospect of finally reuniting with family and friends. “I think
they rediscovered their purpose.”