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In a sign of the times, Roy Wilkins Auditorium converts into mass vaccination site

The state will offer 15,000 vaccinations at the St. Paul pilot site, aimed at educators and child care workers.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Roy Wilkins Auditorium has seen a lot since it opened in 1932: performances by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, sporting events featuring the Minneapolis Lakers and the University of Minnesota hockey team, roller derby, and a political rally by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in early 2020.  

In a sign of the times, however, the venue has shifted focus lately to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a saliva testing site that opened in late October.

And on Thursday, a new chapter will begin, when the state converts Roy Wilkins Auditorium into a mass vaccination site for teachers, educators and child care workers. Over a span of five days, nurses will administer a total of 15,000 shots, at a pace of 3,000 per day and 375 per hour.

The process will be incredibly quick: Enter with a temperature check and new surgical mask, check in at six different locations, spend a few minutes with a nurse who provides a shot, walk into another section of the auditorium for a short observation period, and exit into the St. Paul Skyway.

“This is a pilot event, and we’re going to learn from it,” said State Incident Commander Amanda Frie with the Minnesota Department of Health, who gave reporters a tour of the auditorium a day before vaccinations begin. “We learned a lot from last weekend running those nine pilot sites, so, I’m confident this is going to be a great event.”

The vaccinations are not open to the general public. Instead, school districts and child care providers will choose which employees to prioritize and then send them private sign-up links, which will be verified when they arrive at Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Vaccination appointments open at noon on Thursday, lasting through Monday, February 1.

The setup does not look all that different from what you might see at a doctor’s office, with tables, chairs, bandages, rubbing alcohol, Clorox wipes, and other medical equipment in place for vaccination distribution. During Wednesday’s preparations, uniformed National Guard members will be milled about the auditorium, ensuring that the five-day process will move smoothly.

It should be noted, however, that the 15,000 vaccinations will only cover a small portion of teachers and child care workers in Minnesota—about 6% of the roughly 250,000 statewide, to be exact. In recent weeks, some teachers across the metro have expressed concerns about welcoming kids back into classroom settings without widespread vaccine access.

Marcia Wyatt, a second-grade teacher in Minneapolis, told KARE 11 last week that she considers herself to be higher risk with underlying conditions. Her district, and many others, will phase-in classroom learning next month.

“Every teacher, every ESP… every child care worker expected to show up,” she said, “should have that vaccine before we go back in.”

For those lucky enough to get the vaccine this week at Roy Wilkins Auditorium, they’ll have partial immunity until they get their second doses, which will happen again in 28 days. And they’ll come right back to this historic venue in St. Paul to receive those doses, in a similar process that state officials hope will run even better the next time around.