It is a bit after 11 a.m. at the Mega Vaccination Center in Peristeri, northwestern Athens. Even if the parking lot outside seems to be full, in the two hours we spent at the facility we counted 35 people arriving to receive their shots. The center is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and is also open on Saturdays, which are much busier.
It has four rows of 24 vaccination bays, making for a total of 96 vaccination points, which can in theory be all used at the same time, but the number of people visiting the center still has a very long way to go before meeting this capacity. Posted at the door, the security officer informs anyone approaching, “We are vaccinating with AstraZeneca here.” The reactions vary: Some take time to think about it, most of those walking toward the center continue to do so undeterred, and one person shouts, “Just vaccinate me with whatever you have!”
The center was opened on April 1. It is staffed by members of the Hellenic Armed Forces and personnel from the General Secretariat for Civil Protection, who along with the security staff seem to number more than the people arriving to get vaccinated. This is not a vastly different picture than what I witnessed in Germany at the beginning of this huge vaccination drive, without enough vaccines. But this week in Peristeri it seems that some people who had booked appointments did not show up.
Michalis L., 72, says he was skeptical about the AstraZeneca vaccine. “I have already canceled a vaccination appointment once, but even if you stay like this, you achieve nothing and the coronavirus will get you.”
Sixty-year-old Alexis Anagnos tried to schedule a different appointment to get a different vaccine, but “I could not find one, I had to wait until the end of May, and I simply did not want to do that.”
“Even if you go in for surgery on your appendix, there is a risk you might not come back. Even aspirin has side effects. You have to decide if the risks outweigh the benefits,” says 66-year-old Stergios Margaritis. He booked an appointment immediately after the online booking platform allowed him to.
Athina Tampanouri, 62, who is waiting for her husband outside the vaccination center after they got vaccinated together, wanted to complain when talking to Kathimerini. “I kept calling and they would not pick up, they had taken the line down. When they finally answered last week, when I called them from a different number, they told me they would be vaccinating with Pfizer [Editor’s note: No one else from the dozens of people vaccinated said anything to this effect, nor was this confirmed by the center’s staff]. I was told about the AstraZeneca vaccine here at the door…”
We ask her why she didn’t leave. “Appointments for the other vaccines take a long time. I wanted to get vaccinated. I am in a hurry to get all of this done, but on the other hand, I was scared and still am.”
Behind Tampanouri, Ilias Lymperopoulos, 66, and his wife Anna, 60, are leaving the center having just received the AstraZeneca vaccine. “I was a bit worried following the constant stream of information talking about thrombosis cases,” admits Lymperopoulos. “On the other hand, I did not want to wait so long to see my grandchildren. I want to see them again before Easter. It is a risk, but the benefits are greater. The next free appointment was for May 21.”
Anna Lymperopoulou is calmer than her husband. “Is there anything that is risk-free? We came here from central Athens, near Stathmos Larissis, where we live, to get vaccinated here.” After, she reminds me that we met during the Mati wildfires, which left 102 people dead. “[We thought] living in Mati was risk-free. As it turned out, it was not, but we have rebuilt our home and we will stay there again because we like it. It is a bit like that with this vaccine.”
Waiting at the door of the vaccination center are two afternoon appointments (they had appointments for 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., but arrived earlier as it suited them better). The security guard has no objection to waving them in before their allotted time and tells them: “It is not busy inside. You can go in.”
Among the people inside we meet teacher Theofanis Votis, from Ilion. He qualified to get the vaccine as a teacher. “It would be an AstraZeneca vaccine there too,” he tells Kathimerini, adding that he’d prefer to get the vaccine through the online prescription platform. “I was able to book an appointment almost immediately. I wanted to get vaccinated because they are opening the schools again.” He is there with his partner, also a teacher. Not only does she have no reservations about this particular vaccine, but she can hardly wait her turn and keeps asking about the dates that bookings for other age groups will become available.
Just at that moment, 69-year-old Aggelos Savvalas shows up. “I came here to get vaccinated because I am a mathematician, I can read the numbers and understand the probability of becoming ill and exhibiting any serious side-effects from the vaccination. I am going to do it.”
Not everyone at the vaccination center is from Athens’ western suburbs. Others have come from Kolonaki in the center, others from the eastern suburbs of Athens, some from Maroussi in the north, and even some from eastern Attica. These are people who are hoping to get their freedom back “as soon as possible.”