By Eric Lindberg
Like a carefully choreographed dance, thousands of vehicles snake through a maze of orange cones on the asphalt expanse of Dodger Stadium’s parking lots. Fanned out around the cars are hundreds of health care workers and volunteers. They collect paperwork, replenish medical tape and hand out bottles of water. As the drivers lower their windows and roll up their sleeves, many of them grin with joy at the pinch of a needle.
It’s the turning point against a virus that has upended our lives for more than a year.
With each COVID-19 vaccine administered, Los Angeles inches ever closer to bringing the pandemic under control. That gratifies two USC pharmacists — and alumni — who have been at the heart of Southern California’s vaccination efforts since the start.
“I see the vaccine as a sign of healing and progress,” says Negin Sazgar PharmD ’19. “When I see all the cars and the people and the lives we’re changing for the better and how everyone is one step closer to healing and moving forward, that keeps me going.”
Richard Dang ’09, PharmD ’13 also knew vaccinations would be a major key to helping the state reopen and return to normal. He’s an assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at USC, president-elect of the California Pharmacists Association and chair of the association’s COVID-19 Taskforce. “Anything I could do to speed up that process, I was all for it,” he says. “And everyone around me is driven by that same motivation to do what we can to help.”
They’re among hundreds of staff members, students and volunteers from the USC School of Pharmacy and many other departments across the university who help deliver COVID-19 vaccines efficiently and safely in Los Angeles. Both Sazgar and Dang got involved early, helping vaccinate health workers at Keck Medicine of USC and then launching community vaccination sites at Lincoln Park, Dodger Stadium and the USC University Park Campus.
That means long shifts with few days off. But Dang and Sazgar see it as their duty. They spoke with USC Trojan Family about what inspires them to dedicate so many hours to helping safeguard their community against the virus — and what they miss about life before the pandemic.
What is a typical day like at Dodger Stadium?
Dang: We’re open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., so we can be there 12-plus hours. We arrive at 6 a.m. to start the dose preparation because of the volume and magnitude of the work. We’re doing 10,000 to 12,000 vaccinations every day. At our community clinic in Lincoln Park, we might have 20 to 30 people working. At Dodger Stadium, it’s probably closer to 300 to 400 people working on site at any time.
Sazgar: It’s usually still dark outside when we start our day. When I get here, I receive the vaccine from the firefighters who deliver it. Then we start drawing the vaccine. One of my main jobs is training clinicians on how to appropriately draw the vaccine. I do that with any new clinicians. I also review the number of appointments we have to assess how many vaccinations we need to prepare before 8 a.m., which is when our first appointments occur.
Dang: Our primary role is to treat the vaccine preparation process as a pharmacy. We have staff members like Negin doing the dose preparation, verification and quality control — making sure the vaccines are appropriate and that we’re tracking expiration times. At a large site like that, we’re talking about hundreds of vaccines being sent out every hour. We need to make sure they aren’t expired before they can be used. We’re also fielding all the medical questions that come in from any patients who might have allergies, medical conditions or questions about whether the vaccines are appropriate for them.
How do you stay focused during those long shifts?
Sazgar: It’s kind of meditative to do this work. It’s nice to sit and draw up the doses, check the doses and respond to inventory requests. It feels more like working in a pharmacy rather than sitting in a trailer in a parking lot. It feels familiar. I also really like teaching, so educating and training clinicians is really fun for me. Sometimes it’s challenging because they’re really new and they’ve never worked with the vaccine before. We also get new syringes and needles, and sometimes they need a little more finesse to use when drawing up the vaccine.
Dang: I think I am fueled by adrenaline. I’m normally not a coffee drinker, but I did pick it up to see if it helped. But it is mostly adrenaline and excitement and passion for what we’re doing. On the meal side, we’ve been really lucky. The fire department has been providing us with food. So, we get whatever the firefighters are getting, whether it is El Pollo Loco one day, a Habit burger another day or pasta the next day. We’re getting real meals!
What are some challenges to vaccinating thousands of people every day at Dodger Stadium?
Sazgar: The vaccine needs to be maintained at appropriate temperatures. So, when it’s received in the morning, the refrigerator needs to be at the correct temperature range. When it’s prepared in the trailer, it also has to be in a specific range. Once it’s distributed to the divisions and the vaccinating clinicians, that temperature also needs to be maintained. It can go anywhere from 36 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit — basically refrigerator to room temperature.
All of our vaccines are distributed in coolers, so we monitor the temperature and can either add or remove ice. They have temperature probes that I check throughout the day. We have a temperature probe in the trailer as well. Typically, when we start, it’s so cold in the trailer — around 45 degrees. It warms up, but it has never really gone beyond 72 degrees. We’ll turn on the air or open windows if we need to. I’ve seen people bring blankets because they get cold. I’m used to it, and I wear a bunch of layers. Some of the newer clinicians will bring a blanket or a big jacket.
How do people react to getting the COVID-19 vaccine in Los Angeles? Have you had any memorable moments?
Sazgar: At Lincoln Park, there was a gentleman who got the vaccine and his first question was “Can I hug my grandson now?” I had to tell him, “Not yet. We are still waiting for guidance on when that is possible.” This was a few months ago. Tons of people are missing that sense of personal touch and contact with other people. That was so bittersweet and touching — all he wanted was to hug his grandson.
Most people are really excited and happy. You see the vaccine so often, you kind of forget how special it is to a lot of people. They are so appreciative and happy and grateful and pleasant. It’s so refreshing to see people who are so thankful that you’re taking time to help them.
Dang: We’ve had people crying — everyone is so excited. People were telling us, “This is the first time I came out of my house” or “This is the most people I’ve seen in more than a year.” For the first month, almost every person wanted to take a picture with us or livestream their vaccination or take a video. A lot of people wanted to commemorate that moment.
For me, the ones that stand out are our health care workers in the very first phase. They told us they weren’t seeing their family, that they weren’t living at home. With the vaccine, they felt like they could finally protect their family because they were always scared of bringing the virus back home. This brought them some peace of mind.
Does it feel good that pharmacists are in the spotlight with their vaccination work?
Dang: Oftentimes, pharmacists are in the background and don’t get a lot of attention. It’s been great to get recognition for pharmacists and our colleagues and the role we’ve been playing in this pandemic.
Sazgar: It’s great that we are recognized for what we bring to the table. We also have nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and all kinds of other clinicians, and that collaboration is really nice to see. We have the academic sector with the USC School of Pharmacy. Then we have the public sector with the Los Angeles Fire Department and the mayor’s office. We have a community organization with CORE [a nonprofit disaster relief group] and clinical groups like Curative and Carbon Health. Every industry is represented, and it honestly wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t all collaborating with one another. It’s incredible to see what can happen when people come together.
Dang: It’s been such an all-hands-on-deck situation. Even just in the USC pharmacy school, it feels like everyone — from the dean down to our students — has been involved in these efforts. Everyone is offering their time and coming to clinics as much as they can on breaks or their off days. Our students are coming in between their classes and exams.
We also work with other USC schools, including physician assistant students from the medical school and nurse practitioner students from the social work school. Some of our alumni come in and volunteer, and we have retired pharmacists, nurses and doctors helping out. Everyone really has that same mission and mentality: Whatever you need, we’ll provide it to you.
What are you looking forward to doing when the pandemic comes under control?
Dang: I’ve been really looking forward to going back to a gym. While I was able to set up an at-home garage gym, it’s not the same feeling. I also want to travel. I normally would have traveled around the country for conferences and events and personal trips. I’ve really enjoy traveling to Hawaii and Japan in the past, so maybe a visit there. I also cancelled a trip to Europe because of the pandemic, so I’m looking forward to being able to travel there soon.
Sazgar: Just eating at restaurants — I’m a foodie. Hugging my loved ones and being around them. Concerts! Oh my gosh, I love going to concerts. The last concert I went to was Ariana Grande in 2019. It’s been a long time. I’d love to see Radiohead or go to Coachella — something really big and bold and exciting. I’m not even that into festivals, but I’d love to go to Coachella right now.
What motivates you to do this work?
Sazgar: If I’m not one of the boots on the ground, who will be that person? If I’m not vaccinating my family members, my friends, my colleagues, my community, then who is going to be the one to do it? I wanted to step up to the plate and be one of the main people helping out.
The other thing I keep in mind every day is this quote from a fitness instructor: “You don’t have to do it. You get to do it.” I take that to heart when I think about being here every day.
Dang: I also wanted to do what I can to help. I knew that USC was the right partner for the city to scale up quickly and use lessons learned from our previous experiences. Working at these sites has been such a rewarding experience and something I never would have expected. I probably would have never met all these amazing people in my life had it not been for the pandemic — firefighters, paramedics, nonmedical staff, people who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 and decided to step up and volunteer. I’m so honored to work side by side with all these incredible people to accomplish our mission.
Editor’s note: This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.