The day before she turned 70, Jerlean McAlister sat down across from a nurse and pushed up her sleeve to receive an injection of the COVID-19 vaccine in her arm.

“This is my little birthday gift,” she said.

McAlister was among those who received the vaccine on the first day of the West Michigan Vaccine Clinic at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids.

Kent County, Spectrum Health and Mercy Health, through their collaboration in Vaccinate West Michigan, created the clinic with the goal of vaccinating large numbers of people at one central location.

The clinic opened Monday with a small number of appointments, consistent with the amount of vaccine available. Vaccinations are available by appointment only.

“This location was chosen for its easy accessibility via bus lines and  parking, as well as its large footprint, which allows for social distancing and scaling,” said Brian Brasser, chief operating officer at Spectrum Health. “As vaccines become more plentiful, we will be able to scale up significantly.”

‘In it together’

McAlister initially felt hesitant about getting the vaccine.

She read and listened to doctors, pharmacists and scientists discuss the research behind the vaccine.

And when she received an appointment for the vaccine the day before her 70th birthday, she decided she would go ahead with it.

“I have to give myself all the chances and opportunities to stay healthy,” she said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed society, McAlister has turned to her faith—praying for health care workers on the front lines, scientists researching treatments and vaccines, and for those who feel isolated at home.

“The one thing about this whole situation is that we are all in it together,” she said. “We have to be kind to each other and help each other get through this.”

Health challenges may have slowed her down, but they have not dimmed McAlister’s desire to serve others. Throughout the pandemic, she has embraced technology as a way to worship online and take part in the ladies group and the prayer line at her church, Eastern Avenue Church of Christ.

She hopes the vaccine will help in that mission, by keeping her healthy.

“I’m still growing and learning,” she said. “The foundation and basis of my life is my belief, my church, my congregation. I want to be as helpful and as active as possible.”

After she received the shot Monday, McAlister described the poke in her arm as “uneventful.”

“I’ve had mosquito bites that were worse than that,” she said.

‘It represents hope’

The West Michigan Vaccine Clinic brought back memories for Tom Ozinga, an 82-year-old retired Calvin University professor.

“I’m old enough to remember the polio vaccine in the 1950s,” he said. “I remember going with my parents to a Grand Rapids school, and we all stood in line and eventually got a sugar cube with the polio vaccine in the sugar.”

The surge in polio cases “was really a dreadful thing when I was growing up,” he said.

He sees similar concerns—and fears—today over COVID-19.

“The whole population has been really scared about this virus, especially older folks like me,” he said. “Because the virus seems to hit older folks especially hard.”

Throughout the pandemic, Ozinga and his husband, Phong Hoang, have worn face masks, practiced social distancing in public, and followed other guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. They have little contact with their family. They attend church online.

“The people-to-people contact we all miss is a real casualty of this virus,” he said. “We are created to be relational people and when that is gone, that is a really huge sacrifice.

“And it’s the fault of the virus.”

After receiving the injection in his arm Monday, Ozinga looked up and said, “That was really exciting.”

He sees the vaccine as a big step toward victory over the virus.

“It represents hope for a return gradually to normal life,” he said.

Ozinga praised the way the county, Spectrum Health and Mercy Health are working together to bring vaccines to West Michigan.

“I think it is wonderful,” he said. “That is a real commitment to the community.”