car at vaccination site
Volunteers used to make up about half those helping people get vaccines at Golden Gate Fields. Feb. 4, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

Hundreds of volunteers helped ramp up operations at Berkeley’s largest COVID-19 vaccination site, Golden Gate Fields, since shortly after it opened on Feb. 5.

They directed traffic, kept watch in the 15-minute post-vaccination observation area and administered vaccines if certified to do so.

But, at the beginning of March, Curative, the company contracted by Berkeley to run the drive-through mass vaccination site, nixed volunteering. The company cited concerns around liability.

So the approximately 350 volunteers — 120 of whom were licensed vaccinators  — were told they could not help anymore. Curative replaced them with its own employees.

The close of the volunteer program was disappointing, said Maia Small, Berkeley’s volunteer director for the site and a volunteer herself. But Curative is in charge of staffing at the site, and she said she understood its caution.

“Our volunteer team was an absolute joy.” —Berkeley’s volunteer director

“Our volunteer team was an absolute joy,” said Small. “Mobilizing them to help the community was not only heartwarming but absolutely therapeutic to so many people involved, including myself. The saying ‘It takes a village’ feels very, very poignant and I’ve thought of it regularly as the community would reach out wanting to help.”

Small hopes that at least some degree of volunteering can be restored.

The Golden Gate Fields site, located in Albany, is a partnership between Berkeley and Albany to serve both cities and the rest of Alameda County. Since opening, more than 37, 000 doses of vaccine have reached arms there, according to Capt. Colin Arnold of the Berkeley Fire Department, which manages site operations.

Small and Arnold broke the news about letting volunteers go to the volunteers in a March 11 email.

“Over the last few weeks, there has not been consensus within Curative about how to use volunteers while protecting themselves from liability concerns,” they wrote.

Curative, the email explained, is responsible for workers’ compensation, injury liability, medical malpractice and other employment factors at the site. “It has challenged them to consider how they could work the volunteer model into their workflow. Because of that, we are not currently able to schedule any additional volunteer shifts until there is a more concrete plan on how to protect everyone (including you!) here on site,” they wrote.

A line at the Berkeley mass vaccination site in Albany’s Golden Gate Fields, which is being run by Berkeley in partnership with Curative. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

About 350 people volunteered at the vaccination site

Small and Arnold praised the volunteer effort in the letter, pointing out that, at times, half of the staff at the vaccination site were volunteers. There were about 13 to 35 volunteers active each day. The email continued: “As we scaled up this vaccination clinic from 340 per day to as many as 1,570…We could not have provided that scale without you.”

Talks between the city and Curative on a volunteer pathway aren’t fruitful yet, Arnold said.

Curative did not provide details about its decision to end the volunteer program at Golden Gate Fields, but left open the possibility of future collaborations.

“As Curative expands as a company overall and continues to work with local organizations as much as possible, we are currently looking into partnering with volunteer organizations, already established in the communities we serve, in order to enlist volunteers who would like to help us on our mission to end the current pandemic,” Pasquale Gianni, communications manager at Curative, said in an email to Berkeleyside.

Curative replaced volunteers with its own employees

It took a day or so of adjustment to the absence of volunteers, but Curative added paid employees to fill gaps, and the site is now in full swing, Arnold said.

“Over time Curative ramped up its workforce to where it could meet the demands on the site,” said Arnold. They’ve always been trying to figure out how the volunteers work into their system in terms of liability and other issues.”

Volunteers were instrumental in launching the site, Arnold said. “I was incredibly grateful to have so many members of the community coming down. The community really supported itself by stepping up, and I think that was remarkable and something we didn’t expect,” he said.

Many of the volunteers came from the Berkeley Medical Reserve Corps, volunteer EMTs, and others were from the city’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, Small said. Others weren’t affiliated with any group, just offered a hand.

Volunteering leads to increased community engagement

Berkeley resident Mark Wasserman clocked about 60 hours directing traffic and checking people’s appointment tickets and ID at Golden Gate Fields.

“I had a thoroughly enjoyable and invigorating time working there,” Wasserman said. “I felt like it was really good service, and of course seeing and hearing the reactions of people coming in for their first and second vaccinations was really amazing.  It’s somewhat disappointing to no longer be volunteering there, but I recently returned for my second vaccination and was really pleased to see that the new staff appears to be young and very diverse.”

Wasserman said he was struck by the camaraderie between Curative staff and the fire department, and felt the volunteers got excellent direction. “Just a well-run operation and it showed,” he said.

He’s switching his time now to nature.

“I have started volunteering more hours at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden where I have worked for the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s clearly not the same as helping people get vaccinated, but it provides an amazing respite from the worries and challenges of a pandemic day.”

Golden Gate Fields vaccination site
Golden Gate Fields vaccination site. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

Bryce Nesbitt, who lives in Berkeley, said the vaccine volunteers provided more than just practical assistance; they served as community ambassadors for the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations. He understands Curative’s concerns, but laments the intangibles that might be lost.

“The benefits of volunteering are many: the biggest may be community engagement. Every volunteer brings back to their family and friends stories of their activity. They observe on the ground. That filters back into the community in a way that makes connections, makes it seem real,” Nesbitt said. “With vaccine hesitancy so rampant, personal connections are key.”

Nesbitt sits on a subcommittee of the city’s Public Works Commission that is developing a new volunteer program called Adopt-A-Spot.

Arnold said he’ll warmly welcome volunteers back to the site if Curative finds a way.

Meanwhile, he said, “We have a responsibility first and foremost for getting as much vaccine into the arms of the public as quickly as possible. If we can get the volunteers great, but that’s not the primary goal of the site.”

The city’s website has a COVID-19 volunteering webpage, with other ideas.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...