How a little island drug store became one of the biggest vaccination sites in Washington state
The first thing to know about getting the coronavirus vaccine at Island Drug in Oak Harbor is that Fran Castro is in charge, and she is a goddamn hero.
Three months ago, Castro and her coworkers joined the frontlines in the battle against Covid. That’s when a surprise 2,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine showed up, instead of the 200 they were expecting. The state said not to return the extra doses — use ’em, they said. So use ’em they did.
Within weeks, under Castro’s drill-sergeant guidance, this little drug store became an unofficial mass vaccine site, outperforming even Lumen Field, the vaccine site at the Seahawks stadium in Seattle. As of this week, Island Drug has put more than 35,000 shots in arms, five thousand more than Lumen.
Island Drug does not look like a typical mass vaccine site. There’s a lunch counter, a candy aisle, and a corner for nasal pillows for people with sleep apnea. The vibe is a 180 from the vaccine clinics in bigger cities, with the National Guard, perfect rows of vaccine stations, and armies of volunteers in color-coded lanyards.
On Monday, I was the only volunteer at Island Drug. I’d heard that I might get a shot at the end of my shift, so I signed up to be an usher and drove an hour and a half north. I’d also heard it would be easy. It was not easy.
Natalia Resendez greeted me at the door. “Thank god you’re here,” she said. She said there had been fewer volunteers since Gov. Jay Inslee announced everyone would become eligible for vaccinations on April 15.
Resendez told me to guard the door and not let in more people. “If you could get them to socially distance, that would be great,” she said, gesturing at the line curling around the building and into the parking lot: hundreds of people standing close together.
Those getting vaccinated came from all over western Washington. They were from the most recent eligible tier — teachers, restaurant workers, construction workers — although some people in their 80s and 90s were there too. One woman, standing in line with a walker, said she had woken at 5 a.m. for the drive.
Resendez told me these past three months have changed her. “I’m not the same person,” she said. “At the end of every day, I feel like I’ve been through a war.”
And then Fran Castro showed up. She was short with gray-streaked hair pulled in a low pony. She wore a T-shirt that referenced Tatooine, the homeworld of Luke Skywalker. She hollered at folks crowding her — Pfizer first dose this wall, Pfizer second dose up front. You don’t have your card? Follow the green line. Johnson & Johnson folks, back to your cars — your shots will be ready in two hours. No proof of eligibility or appointment, no shot.
Castro turned to me and explained quietly: The FedEx truck had just arrived with Johnson & Johnson shots, which would be ready at 1 p.m. The system should not have allowed people to sign up for morning.
Some have likened Island Drug’s approach to a cattle call. “I’m not offended by that,” said Andy Plumlee, the director of operations, and also Fran Castro’s husband.
Plumlee recalled an older woman who’d complained to him about the brusque operation. “We’re not kids, and we’re not animals,” the woman had said. “You need to think about how you’re pushing us through.”
Plumlee was unapologetic. “I would be more than happy to do that when I’m not responding to a pandemic,” he said he told her.
The staff of eight at Island Drug is used to criticism. Those first 2,000 vaccines were an accident, but they were also, in a roundabout way, a chance to prove their critics wrong.
“Our staff needed a challenge they could rise to,” Andy Plumlee said.
People in the community had been knocking Island Drug, Plumlee said. They were mad when Island Drug sent them elsewhere, because the mom-and-pop outpost couldn't get some pricier drugs.
In 2018, Island Drug went independent, and shortly after, entered bankruptcy. “People were cheering for us to be shut down,” Plumlee said. “The staff was reading this, dealing with negativity day in and day out. This was their opportunity to punch back.”
When Island Drug management learned that vaccines would soon hit the streets, they saw an opening. They went to the workers, a crew of single moms and former line cooks, and set a goal: 65,000 shots in arms. If they reached the goal, the company would give $100,000 to the staff to do as they please.
“This is an opportunity for us to throw a few jabs at people who have been throwing jabs back at us,” Plumlee told them.
Fired up, Island Drug asked the state for 1,000 shots. The state said no way — didn’t think they could do it. And then, accidentally, sent those 2,000 doses. Island Drug processed that delivery in three days, hungry for more.
The pace has kept up.
On the day I volunteered, I did as Fran Castro told me. I checked Covid vaccine cards to make sure no one was there a week early for their second dose — they would get sick if they got the shot too soon.
In line, people were anxious. They had appointments for 9:42 a.m., 10:23 a.m.; would they miss their slot? Just stay in line, I said. The plane won’t leave without you, I added, whatever that meant, but it seemed to put them at ease.
One young woman had such bad anxiety she could barely leave the car. “The pandemic?” I asked her boyfriend. “It’s always been bad, but this is a new level,” he said.
Some noted it was a nice day to wait in line; the daffodils were in bloom. The growler jets from the nearby Naval Air Station were quiet. Most of us had crossed Deception Pass on the drive here, one of Washington’s awe-inspiring wonders.
Another woman from northeast Seattle told me that she was a Covid long-hauler. She got the virus a year ago, when people weren’t wearing masks. She was here for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, because it was one shot. She couldn’t make this drive twice, she said. She waited hours for her shot, and by the end of the day was fast friends with others in line — and me.
As those coming for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine arrived, a woman approached me from the highway. She had holes in her T-shirt and no shoes. She said she had an appointment but couldn’t prove it, because she had no phone and no printer. I looked back at Fran Castro and the others in line. They would approve, I thought. I handed the woman the orange piece of paper that guaranteed her a shot.
And then it was my turn to get vaccinated. I stood in line, handed my paperwork to Plumlee, who is very tall and very blonde. He didn’t even glance at me. He pointed me to a room, and the vaccinator — incidentally, the owner, a man named Aaron Syring (yes, really) — gave me a jab. Start to finish: 45 seconds. Syring, who is computer savvy, built the online system for people to sign up for vaccines.
For Syring, these past months have demonstrated the power of community. By email, he listed his gratitude: People “expressing overwhelming appreciative sentiments — many shed tears of joy,” he wrote. “Some give gift cards to volunteers or hand-written notes to staff.”
County staff, he continued, and state department of health workers “taking our calls and emails, advocating supplying our community this valuable resource.”
“These experiences motivate our team to perform at a high level every day,” Syring said, “and make sacrifices to be at work extra hours despite leaving exhausted.”
As I returned to my car, a woman rolled down her window to shout her thanks. I thought about it: On this sometimes stressful day, just two people out of hundreds had been rude, including an older gentleman in a Navy cap who flapped his arms at me for a while, telling me it was no way to run an operation.
Island Drug may not make it out of its financial troubles. Plumlee will apply to the federal government for the administration fee for those providing the vaccine. He believes that might help, and that was partly why he took on this challenge at first. But now he and Castro see their staff feel pride in what they’ve done.
“Whatever happens to the company long term,” Plumlee said, “the staff will be able to say, ‘I was a part of that.’”