How one local pharmacy operated a mass vaccination site to administer 1,100 doses

Obtaining doses of the coveted COVID-19 vaccine proved to be just one step in a lengthy process for Barths Pharmacy. The next hurdle for Lou Cassara, owner of several Barths on the East End, focused on distribution. How could he safely and effectively administer more than 1,000 doses in a timely fashion?

Mr. Cassara considered the locations of his individual pharmacies. In Jamesport, the pharmacy sits on a corner in a residential neighborhood. In Cutchogue, he worried about the parking lot becoming jammed up. His South Fork locations didn’t seem suitable either, he said.

So he set out to find a central location, one place where he could bring everyone together to hold a mass vaccination event.

Keeping in mind that those receiving the vaccine were largely senior citizens, he wanted a big enough space that would allow the distancing needed to keep everyone safe. The last thing he wanted was someone to become infected with the virus while waiting to get the vaccine.

His search led him to an ideal partner: the Westhampton Beach Fire Department, which has a spacious headquarters and a spotless kitchen where Mr. Cassara’s team could set up.

Over three days last week, the pharmacists at Barths administered about 1,100 COVID-19 vaccines.

“People were literally sitting in the chair, crying in the chair, that they didn’t have to go elsewhere and we had the vaccine right here in Westhampton Beach for them,” Mr. Cassara said. “It was really, really touching.”

As the race to vaccinate continues across New York — with approximately 300,000 doses arriving each week for nearly 7.1 million eligible residents — the story of Barths Pharmacy provides a glimpse into a local pharmacy’s role as part of the state’s vast network of distributors. Access to the vaccine has been troublesomely lacking on the East End. Local officials in January requested more access in a letter to the governor and county executive, and Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) on Tuesday also urged the state to expand access on the East End. A state-run vaccination site began at Stony Brook University in mid-January. 

When the state expanded access to Phase 1b in the distribution process, opening eligibility to anyone age 65 and older, the team at Barths got to work.

Mr. Cassara said Rochelle Diamond, supervising pharmacist at the Jamesport location, took the lead on setting up the paperwork process with the state. She teamed up with Mr. Cassara’s son, Conor, who works at a different location.

Each pharmacy location needed a pin number to register with the state. The pharmacists who would administer the vaccine needed to complete a training video as well.

Two longtime pharmacists, Vincent Alibrandi (left) and Lou Cassara, pictured at the Cutchogue location in 2018. (Credit: Rachel Siford/file) 

Trying to streamline the process, Mr. Cassara got on the phone and dialed into the state’s Health Commerce System for guidance on navigating the process.

“I’m talking to this guy on the phone and he says ‘Well sir, you’re at the right spot,’ ” Mr. Cassara recalled.

He needed to connect his pin number to the New York State Immunization Information System, which allowed the pharmacy to order the vaccine. 

He spent more than an hour on the phone working through the setup to finally place an order.

At that point, he encouraged customers to fill out the COVID-19 Immunization Screening and Consent Form — which is required regardless of where someone receives the vaccine. The pharmacy staff began sorting through how many names they had collected. In Cutchogue, there were about 80; in Jamesport, about 173; and in Westhampton and East Moriches, over 200 each.

He connected with Westhampton Fire Chief Mauro DiBenedetto, who was on board with allowing the firehouse to operate as a vaccination site pending approval from the fire commissioners. Mr. Cassara then set up a meeting with commissioners Donald Metcalf, Dean Culver and Thomas Betjemann. 

He credited Captain Tom Glover for helping set up the firehouse to accommodate the vaccine team.

“We literally set up like a MASH unit,” Mr. Cassara said. “I had tables downstairs, we had dividers, we had privacy from the general public. We had a huge, six-foot-apart wait area.”

An EMT was on hand in case anyone suffered a reaction to the vaccine.

“We held all the vaccine in one location,” he said. “Nothing is more secure. We had the top floor of the firehouse in total lockdown.”

Mr. Cassara said they set up an assembly line. From the kitchen area, he was pre-dosing every dose and sending them down based on how long the lines were.

The first vaccinations began last Tuesday around 12:30 p.m. and continued through 7:30 p.m., filling about 350 orders. Last Wednesday, they worked from around 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., filling another 550 orders. On the final day, last Thursday, they completed the last 200 orders.

Each of the recipients will need a second dose. Mr. Cassara said he hopes to get those administered in a single day. The next step, he said, is figuring out the billing process and how that works with the state’s Medicare system before setting up another order.

One customer from Cutchogue who received the vaccine said Barths “did an outstanding job,” adding that it was a “tremendous relief” to get the first dose.

The latest data as of Tuesday from the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker shows 212,802 doses (first and second) out of 288,360 received have been administered on Long Island, still a long way from the type of herd immunity required to begin putting an end to the pandemic. 

To be at the forefront of providing initial vaccine doses was an experience Mr. Cassara said was “very rewarding.”