As a child, Melanie Wolcott competed in an ice skating competition at the old Salt Palace. She also went to Golden Eagles hockey games here and her very first concert, where she saw John Denver.
In the convention center that replaced the arena, she’s taken her kids to the FanX comic convention and attended a few other professional events.
This is a place filled with good memories. And this year, she’s added something more, something historic.
On her weekends, this registered nurse at the University of Utah has been giving people the coronavirus vaccine in the middle of the dimly lit and cavernous Grand Ballroom.
“This reminded me of what it was like volunteering for the Olympics,” Wolcott said, recalling the 2002 Games held in Salt Lake City. “Everyone was excited to be a part of it.”
When the mass vaccination clinic started in January, people were enthusiastic to get a shot, some were so relieved they became emotional. It felt celebratory. And as the weeks turned into months and thousands of people walked the 200 paces from the front door to the ballroom, the excitement drifted, but the importance of what was taking place there did not.
On Saturday, Wolcott gave Utahns their second dose of Moderna’s vaccine. This was the last day the Salt Palace served as an immunization clinic.
As more Utahns have become vaccinated and the sign-ups have dwindled, the Salt Lake County Health Department is starting to shift away from these massive sites to a more targeted approach.
The Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy will end its vaccination efforts on June 12. The Maverik Center’s drive-up vaccination clinic will close the last week in June. Until that time, they are taking walk-ups Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
These big sites will be replaced with the county’s standard five immunization clinics and pop-up coronavirus vaccination efforts at businesses, churches and other gathering places.
Latasha Roddan was one of the last to get vaccinated at the Salt Palace. She picked this place because it was close to her house and easy to get to. She liked how organized the process was, leaving her with a minimal wait to get her shot. The first one didn’t hurt at all. The second one stung a bit.
Roddan and her husband waited a while to get the vaccine because they felt a mix of excitement and fear. Now, though, she said “It is worth it … people should get the vaccine if they can.”
After waiting 15 minutes to make sure she was OK, Roddan went to Delish to pick up some pastries to bring back to her two children and enjoy a sleepy Saturday.
Wolcott gave Roddan the vaccine. She has enjoyed interacting with people, seeing it as a welcome change from working at home throughout the pandemic. And giving up some of her weekend time, didn’t feel like work.
“I want to be part of the solution,” she said. “I want to make a difference.”
Tahra Veasley has worked as the logistics lead at the Salt Palace, helping to make sure patients like Roddan have a smooth experience. She spent Saturday keeping track of the flow of people, but also coordinating with staff to pack up. Conference rooms outside of the 45,000-square foot ballroom had been turned into a break room; a storage facility for cotton balls, bandages and a whole lot of gloves; and a room to lock up radios and tablets.
At its peak, 2,200 people got vaccinated at the Salt Palace in a day, fewer than the Salt Lake County Health Department originally thought, but enough to create a line that snaked through the hallways as it does when people line up to get a picture with a celebrity during the comic convention.
Veasley timed the morning rush. It usually lasted an hour, on Saturday, when the line didn’t get longer than a dozen people, it took only 25 minutes. She expected 440 to get vaccinated on this last day.
Her job will shift to the county’s outreach effort, trying to bring the vaccine to people who have yet to receive it.
“It is nice to go out to the community,” she said. “To go to the people who can’t come to Salt Lake City.”
Of those eligible, which is anyone 12 and up, the state says 46.8% are vaccinated.
There are discrepancies among demographic groups and by geography. Minority groups, including Utah’s Hispanic and Black populations, have not received the vaccine at the same rate as white residents. In Salt Lake County, people living on the east side have been vaccinated at a higher rate than those who live in west city communities.
At the end of April, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Utah would shift to a more targeted approach, saying that any community group could sponsor a pop-up vaccination drive and the state would pay for it. And eventually people will be able to get a vaccine at their doctor’s office.
Wolcott, the nurse, may have lost her weekend gig, but she’s excited to see people emerge as more and more get vaccinated. And who knows, she may find herself back in the Grand Ballroom in just a few months. The FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention will be back there this September.