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At the Wolstein Center, a vaccine isn't the only thing you leave with

Posted at 2:11 PM, Mar 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-23 14:11:33-04

CLEVELAND — It was all incredibly easy, and, in a way, uplifting.

I pulled off the freeway, drove down Prospect, and a police officer directed me to a garage, with free parking. (In Cleveland?!? Good start!) I masked up, made sure I had my phone and ID, and walked over to the Wolstein Center, Cleveland’s FEMA-backed mass vaccination site. I qualified because I’m over 40, marking the first time in my life I was thrilled to be over 40.

Friendly volunteers pointed me towards the proper entrance. Everyone in line stood six feet apart, and the line moved quickly. The deeper you went into the arena, the mix of volunteers and staff transitioned from civilian, to some civilian and some military, to just military. I was asked a few questions at a repurposed concession stand (I heroically refrained from asking for a side of nachos with my Pfizer), after which I was directed around the concourse and down the steps to the floor level.

FEMA is an agency that comes with baggage, some of it imaginary (remember when Obama was going to imprison everyone in FEMA camps but he didn’t because that wasn’t really a thing?), and some of it deserved (Katrina), but no complaints here. FEMA has the mass vaccination thing down in Cleveland.

I was directed towards a row of chairs, all of which were spaced apart. As I sat down, the row of people in front of me received their shots. No one had been seated behind me yet. The timing was precise and impressive.

A soldier with a tablet asked a few questions – my birthday, health, etc. I was informed I would be given the vaccine and was asked if that was okay, and I said it was. (I hadn’t been this excited about a shot since I turned 21. Let us never speak of that evening again.) I got the jab, was given a vaccination card, scheduled a return time and waited 15 minutes with everyone else in my row to make sure I didn't have an adverse reaction. And that was it. Like my friends, I quickly posted a non-public photo of my vax card on Facebook. (Hey, FEMA, would it kill you to get a decent selfie station going? Asking for … everyone.)

I can joke now because it was all so well-done. Getting vaccinated was a refreshing burst of competence. After a year of mixed messages from many of our leaders, a lack of preparation or PPE, no at-home testing, the politicization of everything, and interminable waits for vaccine approval and vaccine distribution, this was well-organized and well-done. It finally felt like America had risen to meet the moment.

The young men and women on the floor administering vaccines were everything you hope for from our armed forces. Organized. Disciplined. Respectful. For the last year, we’ve all lived in chaotic comment sections on social media. Watched viral videos of people who refused to wear masks in stores. Shaken our heads at all the monetized divisiveness offered in bad faith on cable news. This was the opposite. This is what beating the pandemic actually looks like – science, the free market, government, the armed forces, local volunteers, and, most importantly, all of us, coming together.

I’ve heard from a few people at the site who broke down in tears. They hadn’t seen this many people in a public space for over a year. They were overcome by a powerful feeling of being among others and fighting back -- together. For a year, we were asked to do our part by not doing anything, often alone. This was doing something, with strangers, and it felt good -- a deeply personal but also historic moment.

The pandemic isn’t over, but for the first time it feels like we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

You can.

They’re the arena lights at the Wolstein Center.

Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Email: