As they have every weekend since late January, COVID-19 vaccination clinics sprang up across La Plata County on Saturday. But unlike during previous months, some of them were also able to offer the vaccine to 16- and 17-year-olds.
“We know a lot of people have been anxiously awaiting for when they’re eligible for vaccination, and everybody age 16 and older is eligible now,” said Brian Devine, San Juan Basin Public Health’s deputy incident commander for COVID-19. “If you’re 16 or 17 years old, you can only get the Pfizer vaccine, which we have plenty of in La Plata County. If you’re 18 or older, you’re eligible for any of the three approved vaccines, and we have providers providing all three of them at different times and in different places in La Plata County.”
Devine was helping coordinate a second-dose Pfizer clinic at the La Plata County Fairgrounds on Saturday. He said 480 people were scheduled to attend the clinic that day, an handful of whom were younger than 18.
Jacob Pinkerton, a 17-year-old Durangoan, got his first dose of the vaccine on Saturday.
“I’ve heard stories about people getting sick, and I’m having anxiety about that, but I’m looking forward to being vaccinated and being hopefully safe,” he said.
As of Friday morning, the last point at which data was available, 45% of La Plata County residents had received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 32% are fully immunized. Among residents eligible for the vaccine, 54% of the 16-and-older population had received one dose, and 39% were fully immunized.
Devine said everyone who is eligible should get the vaccine.
“We know a lot of people have been waiting their turn – it is now their turn,” he said. “Anybody who has been waiting because they weren’t eligible, or even if they were eligible earlier and just wanted to see how it was going or were saying, ‘Well, I might wait until more people have had the opportunity to get vaccinated,’ now is the time. If you were waiting for other people who were higher risk, thank you for doing that; we really thank people for that choice. And now is the time for you to come in and get vaccinated as well.”
He said La Plata County currently has 20 different vaccine providers conducting clinics. The number of people getting vaccinated continues to climb, but public health officials are concerned that people have been waiting.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard from people, ‘Yes, I plan to get vaccinated, but I’m pretty low-risk, so I’ll just wait until the end,’” Devine said. “Now is the end.”
Getting Coloradans vaccinated is particularly important at the moment because Gov. Jared polis announced Friday a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in the state, Devine said. This wave is driven primarily by the B117 variant of the coronavirus, aka the United Kingdom or British variant. It is more transmissible, so it’s easier to catch and it is more severe, leading to an increase in infections and hospitalizations.
“We’re seeing hospitalizations rise in the 40-to-49 and 50-to-59-year-old categories,” he said. “The best way to protect yourself against this variant that is now spreading across Colorado and across La Plata County is to get vaccinated. The vaccines are all highly effective against this variant and the other variants we have, as well as the original version of the virus.”
As more and more La Plata County residents receive vaccinations, SJBPH is trying to find ways to reach those who have not been vaccinated and accommodate their schedules.
“We’re starting to look at different models that – instead of this large clinic model – make vaccines available in more places in smaller amounts and spread out over time,” Devine said. “People who have transportation issues have been a priority for us for a long time, but we’re finding now there are plenty of people who want to get vaccinated but don’t have a lot of time to put into figuring out how or when or where, and so we want to be able to bring vaccines to them.”
This might involve drive-thrus, going to community events and setting up outside, walk-in clinics, or going to apartment complexes, he said. Another focus for SJBPH in the near future will be holding clinics at a range of times of day to make them easier to attend.
“We want to make it as easy as possible,” he said.
Between coordinating volunteers, ensuring the vaccine and supplies are there, organizing a 500- or 1,000-person clinic is like catering a wedding every week, he said.
“Now we need to be in a model where we have restaurants,” he said. “They are set up, they are open, they are ready for you when you are ready to come in and get vaccinated, and they have more consistent staffing and supply.”
Even as the era of large COVID-19 vaccination clinics begins to wane in the county, though, people are still excited to give and receive the vaccines. Joe and Betzi Murphy, a husband-and-wife team volunteering at the clinic’s vaccination stations, said the enthusiasm of both volunteers and patients has remained high since the clinics began.
“It’s this really high-energy feeling that you get,” said Joe Murphy, a retired family doctor. “Since January, all the patients come in and they’re excited and so are the providers. It’s been a really nice environment.”
“A lot of people say they’re really happy they can hug their grandkids now,” said Betzi Murphy, a retired dietitian at SJBPH. “Us, too.”