LOS ANGELES — It was about 9 p.m. when a nurse at one of the largest vaccination sites in the country ran out of doses.
A sea of cars waiting for hours in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium waited some more. All the runners — the workers who dash between the lanes of idling Hondas and Chevys to fill empty coolers with the coronavirus vaccine — were busy running.
“You need more vaccine?” a trim 49-year-old man in a mask asked a nurse. “I’ll get it.”
He grabbed the blue picnic-style cooler and sprinted away, leaving his security detail behind.
The impromptu runner was Eric M. Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles.
By the end of the night, 7,730 vaccinations were given out for free in nearly 15 hours, all in a baseball stadium parking lot. Mr. Garcetti has been working the stadium’s front lines off and on since it opened Jan. 15, both to better understand and fix the logistical problems, he said, and to pitch in. During one day last week he worked the site from about 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
He directed traffic in a yellow vest. He handed out vaccination cards. He asked his constituent-patients if they had ever had anaphylactic shock. He sorted out appointment mix-ups, giving one confused man’s son his personal cellphone number, and relied on his Spanish as often as his English (“Cómo se dice ‘anaphylactic shock’?” he sighed at one point).
And it was never enough. The wait on previous days ranged from 15 minutes to more than an hour. That night, some waited four hours for their shot, others five, and they let the mayor know it.
“Sorry again about tonight,” Mr. Garcetti told them. “That’s why I’m working the line. We’ll get it better.”
In the past few weeks, the mayor and other local and state officials have come under intense scrutiny for their handling of the virus and the vaccination rollout.
Mixed messages led to widespread confusion. The state opened up eligibility to anyone 65 or older, but county officials said they would instead continue vaccinating only health care workers, a move backed by Mr. Garcetti. But the county, under pressure, suddenly reversed course and allowed those 65 or older to get vaccinated, leaving the mayor looking ineffectual and out of step.
Yet for all the mishaps, Los Angeles has a higher vaccination rate than other large cities and counties — 83 percent of the doses the city has received have been administered, compared with 74 percent in New York City, 52 percent in San Antonio’s Bexar County, and 58 percent of the doses ordered in Phoenix’s Maricopa County.
One day at the Dodger Stadium site showed the enormous challenge ahead for Mr. Garcetti and local officials, and the dizzying logistics of giving out perishable doses by the thousands in a sprawling space never intended for a public health crisis, by a city bureaucracy that does not even have its own health department.
“Something that wasn’t here suddenly is — and the decision to build this was made less than two weeks ago,” Mr. Garcetti said. “We’re driving the car at 60 miles an hour while we’re building it.”
After the morning debriefing before the gates opened at 8 a.m., Mr. Garcetti walked up the parking lot’s paved, rolling hills. Even when the parking lot at Dodger Stadium is empty it feels full: a kingdom of traffic cones.
“Thirty thousand cones,” the mayor said. “We had to get every cone that the city has, in every department — Water and Power, Transportation — and then buy more on top of that. We spent sixty grand just on cones.”
The car culture of Los Angeles carries over in the parking lot: The people who have scheduled appointments for a shot of the Moderna vaccine never have to leave their vehicles or even open their doors. The lot resembles a massive drive-in movie theater without the screens. Vehicles awaiting shots run out of gas or break down.
Jan. 20 was the first full day that vaccinations were available to all Los Angeles County residents aged 65 and older. Along with the city employees, police officers and health care workers allowed to get vaccinated, they were expected to fill the Dodger Stadium lot.
As the mayor arrived at the stadium entrance, a hint of what was in store was already visible. Stretched out before Mr. Garcetti were several lanes of waiting vehicles — a backup before the gates even opened.
Mr. Garcetti tapped his iPad. And he tapped it again and again. Nothing happened.
He was now working as a “documenter,” checking people into the online system before they received their shots. But he needed an internet connection.
“All my kingdom for an iPad,” he said. “Isn’t that what Shakespeare said?”
The sluggish internet was one of a multitude of problems that added to the long wait.
One phrase about Los Angeles has always appealed to the mayor.
Antonia Hernández, the former president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the city an “imperfect paradise.” It is an apt phrase to sum up the Dodger Stadium site: a flawed, hopeful work in progress, ringed by hills topped with palm trees in January sunshine, that puts more vaccines into people’s arms in a few hours than most sites do in a day.
The stadium parking lot has been the scene of nearly 56,000 drive-through vaccinations in its first nine days of operation, with a daily average of 6,203. A team of firefighters, paramedics, nurses, pharmacy students, nonprofit workers, city employees and celebrities have created this “city on a parking lot,” broken up into divisions called Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. The Los Angeles Fire Department leads the city-run site, assisted by Community Organized Relief Effort, or CORE, the nonprofit group co-founded by the actor Sean Penn.
Near the site’s tents and R.V. trailers, key strategy gets hashed out on folding chairs or next to plastic Jersey barriers. Walkie-talkies crackle with requests for Chinese speakers. There is Krispy Kreme for breakfast and Subway for lunch (the fruit on the tables is for poking with syringes during training sessions). At the trailers marked “Vaccine Draw,” runners elbow past Mr. Penn, slide their empty coolers inside and await a fresh batch of syringes.
“Who needs 10?” a worker holding syringes hollered at a trailer door.
“We need 25,” a runner replied. “But we’ll take 10.”
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
After lunch, Mr. Garcetti was back out on the line. A woman’s face lit up as she pulled to a stop in a traffic-cone lane.
“You’re Gavin Newsom, right?” she asked, mistaking him, as a few others did that day, for the governor of California.
Some had no idea who was handling their vaccination, but others recognized the mayor. They waved, shouted their thanks or asked for a picture with him.
“Thank you mayor for checking me in, but defund the police!” one motorist yelled.
Mr. Garcetti, a Democrat, has been battling a surge in coronavirus cases that has only recently started to level off and that infected his 9-year-old daughter. He is also facing a City Hall corruption scandal that led to the federal indictment of one of his former deputy mayors and the public perception that his political star has dimmed. He turned down an offer to join the Biden administration to focus on the pandemic and is leaving office in 2022 because of term limits.
Mr. Garcetti, a co-chair of President Biden’s inaugural committee, had taken note throughout the day that it was Inauguration Day. In the morning, he watched part of Mr. Biden’s speech while sitting on a curb. In the evening, he made an appearance at a virtual inaugural ball, via a laptop set up next to the port-a-potties. He gave a brief speech.
Then he went back to the cars in the Bravo sector.
One of the strangest things about the mass vaccination site was the silence: Even as the impatience and frustration with the long wait grew, hours passed without a single honk of a car horn.
The lines of cars were a portrait of the city, idling.
Men on motorcycles. Drivers with their dogs leaning out of the windows. Latina health care workers. Ethiopian families. Bangladeshi merchants. Retired record-company executives. Workers at LAX. A 100-year-old woman worried that she did not have enough muscle mass in her arm for the shot. One of the mayor’s early check-in clients wore a mask, sat on the passenger side of a Cadillac Escalade and waited just like everyone else: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie star and former California governor.
Jimmie Guzman, 42, who works at a homeless shelter, joined the stadium line at 1:10 p.m. He waited, crawled forward, waited, crawled forward. He got his shot more than four hours later, at about 5:30 p.m.
“I don’t mind at all,” Mr. Guzman said. “It’s a blessing to get it. I would have waited a lot longer than that.”
The vaccinations were set to end at 8 p.m. But as the hour approached, hundreds of cars were still in line, backed up all the way to Interstate 5. The mayor decided to keep working. Others did, too.
The Fire Department’s site commander, Assistant Chief Ellsworth S. Fortman, huddled with Mr. Garcetti to go over his plan: Consolidate everything into Bravo division. And reduce the monitoring time for allergic reactions to five minutes.
By 10:45 p.m., the gates were closed and the last cars were on their way out. In the coming days, officials would decrease the wait times and smooth out more kinks.
Earlier in the evening, Mr. Garcetti was pushing a cart from car window to car window when his aide rushed to his side. The mayor pulled out his phone. Legislation needed to be signed.
“My day job,” he said.