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As Germany awaits vaccine, mass vaccination centers are built in less than a week

A new vaccination center in Wiesbaden, Germany, on Dec. 7. The country is converting gymnasiums, arenas and other venues nationwide into locations for administering the coming coronavirus vaccine, expected to begin this month. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

BERLIN — Under the curved brick-and-glass roof of the Arena Berlin, which began its life as a 1920s bus depot, workers raced to lay flooring and rig wiring for the building's newest metamorphosis: a mass vaccination center.

The 70,000-square-foot space on Berlin’s River Spree is one of scores of vaccination sites German authorities were scrambling to finish before a Tuesday deadline. Albrecht Broemmer is in charge of getting six in Berlin ready, and it’s tight.

“That’s my duty, but it’s hard work to get to it,” he said.

Germany is building the vaccination centers across the country even before it has a vaccine to distribute. European approval of the Pfizer vaccine is expected sometime this month.

The German approach could be watched closely by the United States and other countries around the world as they eye ways to vaccinate their populations as speedily as possible.

Time constraints are particularly pressing with the Pfizer vaccine — developed by the German firm BioNTech with German government funding — because of its cold storage requirements.

The vaccine can survive for only about five days after being defrosted from minus-94 degrees, and it comes in trays of just under 1,000 doses, so experts say it makes sense for people to come to a central location that can get as many people in and out as possible.

Britain, which began giving its first vaccines through hospitals this past week, is also expected to open mass vaccination centers next year.

“We asked the federal states to be ready by Dec. 15. And we are confident they will be,” said Hanno Kautz, a spokesman for Germany’s Health Ministry.

Vaccination centers are being constructed because “you want to be quick,” he said, and there simply isn’t the space at hospitals, he said.

How Britain won the West’s race for the coronavirus vaccine

Construction is underway in all 16 German states. The central state of Hessen has said it will have 28 centers ready, with the capacity to vaccinate 28,000 a day. Michael Schaich, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that operations have been tested, including a “seamless logistics chain.”

“We are well prepared,” he said.

The western state of Baden-Württemberg is setting up nine large centers for its 11 million people, with 44 more community vaccination points to be added in January.

“It’s better to have [vaccination centers] ready and there are delays than the other way around: having the vaccine and no vaccination centers ready to go,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters last week as he visited a new vaccination center in a Düsseldorf soccer ground set up to give 2,800 shots a day. The Health Ministry did not provide numbers on how many vaccination centers it expects to be ready by Tuesday.

The cost of Berlin’s six centers will range from about $70 million to $95 million, according to Broemmer, with other federal states outlining similar investments.

At Arena Berlin, where Broemmer was overseeing the work, there are 80 small cubicles planned for the center, which is designed to vaccinate 4,000 people a day. The aim is to vaccinate 450,000 people in Berlin — about 10 percent of the population — within three months.

But that will depend on supplies, and little is certain.

Broemmer sketched out his plans for the space with a Lego-brick model before handing them to architects.

Centers will have a waiting area where patients will be monitored for a half-hour for side effects before they are allowed to leave.

On Dec. 8, Arena Berlin was prepped to be ready to vaccinate 4,000 people a day by next week. (Video: Loveday Morris/The Washington Post)

About 20 doctors will oversee the center at any one time, with about 150 staff members and volunteers. Those administering shots will be drawn from organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Broemmer said the city also was in discussions with airlines including Lufthansa and easyJet about using flight attendants who have first aid training.

Europe has purchased an initial 200 million doses of the vaccine, double the initial order from the United States. But Germany has also secured an additional 40 million outside the European Union contract.

Germany’s federal states have scrambled to procure the deep freezers necessary for vaccine storage. That was a challenge, Broemmer said.

“The problem is to find these fridges,” he said. “We ordered them two months ago, and we got them.”

There are three for all of Berlin, enough to store the 900,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that it hopes to initially receive.

Germany was seen as a model to control the pandemic. Now it’s struggling.

In Hessen, Schaich said that his state had also made an “early effort” to get freezers, without giving specifics. “There are only a few suppliers for this ultra-freezing,” he said.

Berlin’s three freezers will be kept at a central location in the city, one of 27 “distribution hubs” across the country, the location of which won’t be made public for security reasons.

There are concerns that the centers could be targets for anti-vaxxers and followers of conspiracy theories. Germany has a vociferous anti-lockdown movement that has been becoming increasingly radicalized, with police still investigating an arson attack on the building of the federal agency for infectious-
disease control in late October.

On Wednesday, the domestic intelligence agency in Baden-Württemberg, home to some of the largest demonstrations, said it would put the main protest organizers — a group called Querdenken 711 — under observation.

“We never know what happens around, what happens at night,” Broemmer said. “There might be arson or something like this. There might be some people that want to make trouble.”

Throughout the pandemic, Germany has been quick to put in motion practical measures such as contact tracing, which took other countries months to roll out. However, now it’s struggling to bring down the number of new cases, as daily deaths reach a record high.

Broemmer was also responsible for overseeing the construction of an overspill hospital in an exhibition center in Berlin during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring, which cost around $4  million but has not taken in a single patient.

Still, Broemmer said, it’s better to be prepared.

Analysis: Europe is starting to beat the pandemic. The U.S. is not.

Germany’s protests against pandemic restrictions are becoming increasingly radical

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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