Staff welcome a driver to the Oakland Coliseum mass vaccination site in March. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Gabriel Hernandez had just finished a job interview April 6 when his dad, Anthony, picked him up on his way to get vaccinated at the Oakland Coliseum. While waiting the required 15 minutes to see if he developed an allergic reaction, Anthony asked staff at the mass vaccination site if Gabriel could also get a shot. As a young man of color who planned to be working a new job soon, the technician obliged. 

“I didn’t even know I was going to get it,” Hernandez said in a video he uploaded to his YouTube channel

The father and son chuckled when Shequilla, the registered nurse in a yellow reflective vest and light blue medical gloves, asked if he was pregnant. “Gotta ask,” she said. 

Gabriel pulled up the sleeve of his white T-shirt and took the shot in his left arm. 

“You are vaccinated,” the nurse said.

“It just made sense to get vaccinated there, no where else,” the 22-year-old A’s season ticket holder and lifelong Oakland resident said in an interview. Hernandez considers the Coliseum to be his second home. Last Wednesday, he watched the A’s play the Astros from the stands.

The Hernandezes received two of the more than half a million doses given to Bay Area residents at the Coliseum. On Sunday, the Alameda County Public Health Department closed down the vaccine operation at the Coliseum after 96 days in operation. 

Running one of the state’s handful of mass vaccination sites at East Oakland’s sports and entertainment mecca was a massive undertaking, and not one without its share of issues. The county’s health authorities have struggled to ensure vaccine shots have been distributed equitably and the appointment system at times excluded key demographic groups. 

Still, the sheer numbers are an achievement: hundreds of thousands of people gained protection at the Coliseum against a virus that’s killed nearly 3.5 million people worldwide. The sports complex’s parking lot served as a beacon of hope during one of the most uncertain times in modern history.  

At its peak, the Coliseum was providing upwards of 8,000 shots a day with 1,200 workers on site. In the few weeks before it closed, this dropped to less than 400 shots a day and about 200 workers, according to county health officials. More than one million Alameda County residents 16 and older—or more than 76% of that population—have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, the Coliseum accounted for 18% of all vaccine doses given to county residents, not including those given to people who live outside the county.

As the vaccination effort shifts to smaller, community-focused clinics led by “trusted messengers,” the Coliseum’s parking lot—a space that most Oaklanders associate with tailgating—will also be remembered for being the center of an ambitious vaccine effort during a once-in-a-century pandemic. Because of the success of the vaccine push in the Bay Area, tailgating could resume at the Coliseum after the state fully reopens on June 15, when the A’s play the Angels at home. 

“We’re working with the state to open up in a safe and responsible fashion,” Dave Kaval, A’s president, told The Oaklandside. “We’re trying to plan for a little bit of a grand re-opening on July 2nd.”

The Beginnings of the Coliseum vaccination site

On Dec. 11, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the first emergency use authorization for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine. Moderna’s vaccine was approved a week later and doses were immediately shipped to healthcare providers nationwide. But there was a logistical challenge: both vaccines needed to be kept extremely cold. This meant that there was an advantage to setting up a few central locations that could give out numerous shots, quickly.

Some Oakland leaders started looking around for a space to deliver vaccines and the Coliseum seemed a perfect fit because of its enormous parking lot accessible by a major freeway and two public transportation systems. The massive 112-acre complex was also available because mass gatherings were still out of the question. 

Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland’s vice mayor, was appointed to the Coliseum Authority Board in January and was soon designated chair of the task force to launch a large-scale vaccine site. “We started working on setting that up even before FEMA and Cal OES got involved,” Kaplan said, referring to the federal and state agencies that would partner with the city and county. 

Nate Miley, vice president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and chair of Coliseum Joint Powers Authority, tweeted on Jan. 19 that the authority had approved the Coliseum to be a mass vaccination site. It had previously been considered as a possible field hospital to treat COVID-19 patients but, thankfully, wasn’t needed for that. 

The Coliseum’s massive parking lot became a surprising asset for Northern California during the pandemic. Credit: Pete Rosos

On Feb. 3, the Biden-Harris administration and Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the Coliseum would be one of two  state-run, federally supported mass vaccination sites “focused on vaccinating underserved communities and those most affected by COVID-19.” The other was at Cal State Los Angeles.

Cal OES and FEMA provided staffing and resources, including a vaccine supply straight from the federal government, meaning the county’s allocation of shots could be used elsewhere. 

“That was the beauty of the feds using the Coliseum site as a mega site: when we were talking about setting up the site by ourselves, we would have been using our own supply of vaccines that were allocated to us from the state,” Miley recently told The Oaklandside.

At a rate of $100,000 per month—plus personnel, water, and excess parking expenses—the Coliseum’s 40-acre north parking lot was soon split into numerous lanes with orange parking cones leading to big white tents. At its peak, 1,200 staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard put 42,000 shots a week into people’s arms.

Dr. Kathleen Clanon, medical director of Alameda County Health Care Services, has been working at the Coliseum site since January. 

“I would say there’s a little bit of sadness,” Clanon said of the Coliseum site closing. “This shows what we can do when we have people from all over the country committed to one goal.” 

The vaccine distribution effort wasn’t always equitable

The Coliseum opened to the public on Feb. 16 “with an explicit focus on making sure communities hit hardest by COVID-19 are not left behind,” according to a state Office of Emergency Services press release. At the time, California’s vaccine rollout was still in Phase 1a, which limited eligibility to healthcare workers, people working in emergency services, education, childcare or in the food and agriculture industries, as well as anyone age 65 or older. 

Kaplan said she soon noticed that communities suffering the worst impact of the pandemic were also receiving the fewest doses of the vaccine, disproportionately excluding Black people and Latinos.

On Feb. 24, Kaplan and District 7 Councilmember Treva Reid sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state health department, Cal OES, and FEMA, writing that there were problems with the state’s online vaccine appointment system, MyTurn. 

“The system has crashed, lost function for the community-based sites, and has proven difficult and unreliable. Other systems exist which do appear to work and could be used,” Kaplan and Reid wrote.  

Myturn initially used codes to prioritize specific groups—residents of zip codes where COVID-19 case rates were highest—for vaccine doses early in the rollout. The code system was quickly scrapped after authorities learned young, healthy people were getting the codes and jumping ahead in the vaccine line.

Despite those and other complaints, Cal OES and FEMA continued to use the $50 million MyTurn site for appointments at the Coliseum. In the end, only about 27% of all vaccines delivered daily in the state were booked through MyTurn, as CalMatters first reported. 

Booking an appointment at the Coliseum was also made difficult because appointment slots were added to MyTurn in bulk and without notice. Some volunteers eventually set up Twitter accounts like Bay Area Vaccine Bot to create notices when new appointments were available Some people became “vaccine hunters,” swooping in when new appointment times were added and making appointments, whether for themselves or their loved ones. It was a process that could be frustrating and time-consuming, especially at times when the state expanded eligibility. 

Another big setback for the Coliseum vaccination site was news that thousands of people were given the wrong doses of the Pfizer vaccine on March 1. Coliseum medical workers told KTVU that the difference in needle designs wasted between 0.05 to 0.1 mL of the 0.3 mL doses. Health officials said those who received the potentially smaller doses would be fine, but the mixup was possibly another reason why some have been hesitant to get vaccinated.. 

The biggest wrench thrown into the vaccination effort’s gears was undoubtedly the “pause” put on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The one-dose shot received emergency authorization in late February, allowing sites like the Coliseum to double their output of fully vaccinated people without the need for a follow-up shot. The J&J vaccine also could be stored in a normal refrigerator, making it easier to use at mobile sites. On March 11, the Coliseum switched to the “one and done” Johnson & Johnson vaccine. To promote the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, California’s first Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris and Dr. Thomas Aragon, California’s director of public health, both received a Johnson & Johnson shot in front of news cameras in the Coliseum’s parking lot. In April, the federal government ordered a temporary halt to use of the J&J vaccine “out of an abundance of caution” after a small number of women experienced dangerous blood clotting issues. The vaccine was eventually cleared for use again after its safety was established.

In April, Alameda County moved into the orange tier of the state’s reopening plans. That allowed the Coliseum to welcome in 10,000 fans for the A’s home opener against the Astros while still operating the vaccine site in the parking lot.

“It was kind of incredible to juxtapose those things, but they were related—people were getting vaccinated, providing us the opportunity to reopen,” Kaval said. “I’m glad we were able to play that role and fans could see the vaccination site.”

At the same time, uncertainty lingered whether the Coliseum would remain open past its original 8-week federal assignment. FEMA started to signal it was getting ready to close down the operation. On April 6, Gov. Newsom announced the Coliseum’s role as a mass vaccination site would continue another four weeks, but vaccine allotment and management would come from Alameda and Contra Costa counties with the goal of delivering 6,000 doses a day. 

On April 12, Alameda and Contra Costa counties took over, switching back to the Pfizer vaccine. Extension of the Coliseum’s role as a vaccine site made sense, say health authorities, because one last big group of people were about to become eligible: youth.

Mia Shah-Dand of Oakland got her first Pfizer shot at the Coliseum on April 17, two days after everyone in California over the age of 16 became eligible. Her first-ever trip to the Coliseum took less than an hour, including the 15-minute waiting period after the shot. 

“What I liked about it was that it was pretty straight forward,” Shah-Dand told The Oaklandside. “I was so pleasantly surprised, blown away actually.”

That’s largely been the response of those who were vaccinated at the Coliseum: things were organized and the people working there were courteous and kind. 

“Delivering vaccines is inherently happy work because you know you are helping the people in front of you,” Clanon said. “It’s a commitment people make to each other.”

But there was one more dent in the Coliseum’s  goal of delivering vaccine equity: As first reported by Street Blogs SF, Cal OES, without prior notice, shut down walk-up appointments from April 19 to May 2 as the site was transitioning into Alameda County’s full control. People could no longer take BART or AC Transit to the Coliseum Station and walk over to the clinic on the pedestrian bridge. 

The barring of pedestrians happened despite ad campaigns encouraging people to use public transportation to access the site. 

The final numbers

In the last two weeks of April, it became abundantly clear that the vaccine supply in the Bay Area was outpacing demand. Appointments at numerous sites remained unfilled as those eager and eligible had already received their shots. The Coliseum went from administering about 6,000 shots a day to less than 400. The Coliseum’s final days were dedicated to delivering second Pfizer shots. 

When Cal OES left the Coliseum and the Los Angeles mass vaccine site last month, it said its strategy of getting to those most impacted by the pandemic worked, as more than 68% of the more than 720,000 doses delivered at both sites were administered to “targeted underserved communities and people of color.” Official statistics don’t confirm this claim for Oakland, however.

Cal OES’ final numbers, tabulated in mid-April, show nearly 41% of the Coliseum’s shots went to white people and more than 28% to Asian Americans. Less than 18% were given to Latinos and less than 4% were given to Black people, even though Latinos and Black people make up 22% and 10% of Alameda County residents, respectively. And in East Oakland, the neighborhoods surrounding the Coliseum are majority Latino and Black. 

Numbers from the FEMA-backed mobile clinics that have popped up at churches, schools, community centers, and other sites distributed in neighborhoods, however, better reflect Oakland’s diversity: nearly 26% of the vaccinated were Latino, more than 20% Black, more than 23% Asian, and just over 23% white.

“Having the mobile units go out to the communities helped us to begin to try to get more shots into people who are reluctant or hesitant to come to the Coliseum site who live in East Oakland,” Miley said. 

While the Coliseum site was chosen because it sat in an area where people of color were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, the 94621 area code, which covers the Coliseum, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Oakland with 43% of eligible residents vaccinated with at least one dose. The county, as a whole, is at 75%.

Kaplan said that’s part of the issue of relying on the MyTurn system. “Remedying this requires greater access to appointments through direct sign-ups by phone and in person, and providing access to vaccination without appointments,” she said. 

Now that the era of mass vaccination sites in Oakland is coming to a close, Clanon said the county is shifting to what she calls “radical convenience,” or smaller pop-up sites with more accommodating hours and offering people a choice of what vaccine they want. She said if a vaccine site gets 100 doses out in a day, that’s a win. “A hundred of the right people is fabulous,” Clanon said. 

It’s still up in the air where the A’s will play after their lease at the Coliseum ends after the 2024 season. Regardless, Kaval says the Coliseum should be honored for its role in the pandemic. 

“It’s like a historic landmark,” he said. “It was an incredibly important event in the history of the Bay Area.” 

As for Hernandez, he didn’t get the job he interviewed for before his vaccination, but he landed another one. He’s been enjoying the signs of things getting back to normal, like going to Wrestlemania 37 in Tampa Bay with his dad after they were vaccinated.  

“Life has been going pretty great since that day,” Hernandez said.