US military-style: What Aussies can expect in vaccine hubs
"Come on in," the young soldier greets me with a smile as I arrive at Javits Centre in midtown Manhattan on a sunny New York Sunday to receive my second dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine.
Winter has finally left New York and there's a buzz on the streets that maybe - just maybe - there's reason for hope ahead.
The Javits Centre, which sits a few blocks west of a more iconic New York landmark - Madison Square Garden - really is one of those places you probably wouldn't go to as a tourist.
The large, cavernous space is mainly used for trade shows and corporate conventions and has a spectacular glass ceiling, which inspired Hillary Clinton to hold her 2016 election-night party there.
In the early days of the pandemic, the centre was commissioned as an emergency hospital. Now it's ground zero for New York's vaccination rollout and it feels like a beacon of hope.
The whole thing runs like a military operation because it is just that. The US National Guard is in charge of getting people through and entering the data of every person to be vaccinated and they are very, very good at it.
As I walk further into the building to get my second shot (no queues outside!), I feel weirdly emotional. A year ago, just 25 blocks up the road, Central Park was also used as a makeshift hospital and morgue during the height of the pandemic, which ravaged New York.
Now, instead of the looming spectre of death, I'm met by another cheery National Guard soldier who compliments me before directing me to the next checkpoint where I'm again guided by a helpful member of the US military.
The soldier who enters my details into the database, looks so shockingly young, I suddenly worry about him being sent to a war zone. But then I remember that New York, too, has often resembled a war zone over the past year. He too gives me a smile and directs me to the next queue where I wait to see a nurse.
As I stand in the surprisingly fast-paced queue (we're all social distancing, of course), I'm struck by how incredibly efficient the process is.
There are soldiers at every turn to answer any questions and to move you forward quickly - they want as many people vaccinated and out. There are extra masks available for any elastic mishaps, bottles of water and litres and litres of hand sanitiser.
There are young couples, middle-aged mums and dads - kids in tow - viewing the whole experience as some sort of civics class.
Elspeth, 45, who lives on the Upper West Side, has brought along her six-year-old-daughter, Ella, so she can witness "history in the making".
"I never thought getting a small vaccine would feel so momentous, but it really feels like taking another step back towards normal life," she says.
Then there's the elderly. Watching the National Guard take such gentle care of a frail wheelchair-bound woman is enough to make me weep.
Another elderly woman, supporting herself with a cane, is asked by a nurse if she had any side effects from the first dose. "Just a sore arm and a headache, but I stayed in bed the whole next day and felt fine."
She grabs the nurse's hand tightly and pats it in thanks.
When I finally reach the front of the queue, I'm met again by two very smiley nurses. One says, "I met my first Australian yesterday and here I am vaccinating another!"
Back home, Australia will establish similar, mass vaccination clinics, when it gets to the third stage of its COVID-jab rollout.
But that is still a way off, as the federal government must first finish inoculating people in aged care homes.
Around 8000 people a day are now being vaccinated at Javits Centre since the site opened 24 hours a day and more than 220,000 New Yorkers have received the jab since mid-January opening.
The nurse who performs my inoculation says she's doing 12-hour shifts "from 7am to 7pm". "It's tiring but worth it - we have done A LOT of people."
She gives me the jab and I don't feel a thing. After the first vaccination, I had a pretty significant headache, verging on a migraine, which lasted for a few days.
"The side effects on this one will be worse," the nurse tells me, suggesting I take a few Tylenol before bed (the American version of Panadol) but I seriously don't care if I'm in bed for a week, I'm so thrilled.
"Congratulations!" she says, "You're fully vaccinated!"
Like the soldiers, she says all this with a huge grin, and I have to stop myself from giving her a bear hug.
I settle for about 500 thankyous before she finally ships me off to the waiting area where you hang around for 15 minutes to make sure there are no allergic reactions.
Over the past year, New York has been put through the wringer. It's hard to articulate to family and friends at home just how badly the city has been ravaged by the coronavirus. Whether through the shocking number of fatalities and illness - friends of friends have died, my wife was seriously ill with the virus, while another close friend was on a ventilator for three weeks. He survived, miraculously, but the side effects have been brutal.
Then there's the loss of a way of life; bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and live venues remain either closed or have opened in dribs and drabs with reduced capacity. As my friend Tommy said: "What is New York without those things?"
I haven't been outside without a mask on in 12 months and Central Park, with its trees and baseball fields, has become a godsend.
I admit, I watched the AFL online and felt searingly jealous of the maskless crowds enjoying sport together.
But, as it did after September 11, New York will prevail. The mood of the people inside the centre was almost one of celebration, even jubilation. Again, there was a feeling that we're all in this together; that getting vaccinated was just another step to getting our way of life back.
And it looks like America is on track to do just that. Last Friday, the US passed 100 million vaccinations ahead of schedule and President Joe Biden declared every adult American will be vaccinated within the next 10 weeks. Given the US has a population of more than 300 million, it's an extraordinary achievement.
Right now, I couldn't be more grateful and more thankful.
Originally published as US military-style: What Australians can expect in vaccine hubs