An Exclusive Look Into The M&T Bank Stadium
Standing outside Baltimore City’s M&T Bank Stadium is a statue of quarterback Johnny Unitas. As a symbol of this ongoing pandemic, the 13-foot bronze statue is adorned with a face mask, just beneath his faceguard.
On this unusually warm Friday in early March, a National Guardsman stands beneath the statue, welcoming residents coming in from the massive parking lot.
“How are you doin, folks, is everybody having an appointment in between 1:30 and 2?” he asks. “Step straight forward.”
He motions to residents to mind the little white cars slowly driving past him, coming in from the parking lot. The cars help people who have physical disabilities get to the stadium.
Once visitors check in they go upstairs to the Club Level, the exclusive part of the stadium where high-rolling fans can enjoy top shelf food and beverages and watch Ravens games from oversized seats. Something like that
Now those bar areas are makeshift pharmacies, walled up with Plexiglass.
Dr. Jason Marx, a critical care specialist with the University of Maryland Medical System, is incident commander of the site.
“Everyone's working as a team here, almost like a factory line. And that's really what we model it after,” Marx says.
He’s leading a tour between the little pharmacies and the rows of vaccination tables, overlooking a view of nearby Camden Yards. Marx estimates there are about 30 tables on this day. At each table is a computer and two staff members.
At the other end of the Club Level is what staff call the observation area. After getting your vaccine, this is where you wait for 15 minutes in case you have an allergic reaction, or 30 if you have a history of allergies.
“At the same time they're here, we have a bunch of staff who have computers on wheels,” Marx said. “They're going around and scheduling the booster appointment.”
Marx also leads a tour of some of the more exclusive spaces.
Like a restroom. It’s now a supply closet for things like gloves and alcohol swabs. You can barely see the mirrors and stalls, peeking behind the towers of boxes.
“The vaccine is stored at the University of Maryland Medical Center,” Marx said. “And it's brought over by courier every morning and any leftovers taken back there at night to be stored.”
The stadium was the state’s third mass vaccination site to open to Marylanders, and was put together from scratch in 18 days - which Marx says is a quick turnaround.
It’s a partnership between the University of Maryland Medical System, the state and the National Guard.
“We all bring our unique strengths,” Marx says. “The University of Maryland Medical System is used to taking care of patients, getting needles in arms, things like that. The National Guard is great at operations and logistics, helping with efficiency and flow and make and helping with the way people move.”
The site serves Marylanders from all jurisdictions. But Marx says they’re trying to get more people from Baltimore City, one of the state’s predominantly Black jurisdictions.
“We want to make sure that we're hitting, we're getting vaccines to everybody, regardless of their ability to get on the internet and schedule, regardless of their ability to get through on a phone,” he says.
Marx says they’re getting more and more efficient every day. When the stadium opened in late February, it administered about 250 to 500 vaccines each day. Now, the stadium administers as many as 5,500 a day.
“They just feel relieved and excited and happy,” Marx says. “The staff sees the joy that they're creating in people, they feel joyful, and so do the people who get vaccinated.”
Among the stadium’s many visitors on this day is 63 year old Roxanne Childs, here to get her first dose. She’s waiting in one of the wheelchairs the stadium lent her. Her daughter Kristin Childs, who’s wheeling her through the waiting line, is also getting her first dose.
For Childs, this has been a difficult year. And she’s looking forward to reuniting with friends and family when she’s fully vaccinated.
“I haven't been able to do my social things,” she says. “And that's been the hard part trying to keep in touch with people and I've had a few family members who’ve passed.
Childs says she’s used to getting shots, but she admits both she and her daughter are a little nervous.
That one looks long,” she says, laughing. “I’ll just have to close my eyes. My daughter does too.”
Their vaccinator, registered nurse Anna Meibers, tells them there’s nothing to be afraid of.
“It’s going to be over before you know it, you’re not even going to know,” she says.
Childs is going first. She’s getting the Pfizer vaccine today and she’ll have to come in about three weeks later for her second dose.
The staff check her name and birthday, and they ask her some final questions. Is she under the age of 16? Does she feel sick today?
As Anna swabs Childs’ left arm, she notices her patient is still uneasy, maybe more so than her daughter.
“You’re being more dramatic than her! I thought you were going to be fine,” Anna says. The needle goes in. “You’re done.”
“What?” Childs says. “Oh my goodness, that was nothing. Thank God for that.”
Emmanuel Alfaro, a senior airman in the National Guard, is sitting at one of the vaccination tables. He says one of the biggest challenges the staff face is crowd control, but it’s become more manageable, and he says visitors have been very patient.
“Early morning, it takes about 30 minutes to get in and out,” Alfaro says. “Then once we start treading into the later day, we started to tread downward into like an hour. An hour and a half is the longest that I've seen.
As the stadium’s on-site coordinator, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wetzelberger helps the National Guard manage the flow of patients.
He’s up every day at 5:30, answering emails and making sure everything’s in order, before heading to the site at 7 a.m. It opens at around 9.
“Every time I look at one of these tables, and I see a needle go in an arm, I feel great because I know we're saving somebody's life,” Wetzelberger says. “That's why this is so important. And all my airmen realize that this is probably the most important mission they'll ever serve on.”
Wetzelberger stressed that the vaccine is safe, and says everyone should register for their vaccine when they can - if only to get a chance to come to this exclusive facility.
“The M&T Bank Stadium is gorgeous. We're on the Club Level. You've never seen it, come see it,” he says. “Come meet and greet the wonderful men and women of the National Guard.”
Megan Porter, a registered nurse in the National Guard, says it feels like spring is really here.
“I’ve had a lot of people break down in tears and shaking because they’re so overwhelmed with joy. They can see their grandchildren again,” Porter says. “A lot of folks they're getting dressed up in their Sunday best to come out and get their vaccine because it's the first time they've really been in an outing.”
Starting April 27, all Marylanders 16 and older are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.