In A Race To Reach Herd Immunity, Roaring Fork Valley Pivots To Smaller, More Equitable Vaccine Clinics
For many local residents, getting a COVID-19 vaccine is now pretty easy -- you can get it anywhere from City Market to your local school. Nationally, the Biden administration set a goal of getting 70% of adults vaccinated with at least their first dose by July 4th. In Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, over 50% of adults have had at least one shot.
As of May 31, the U.S. stands at about 62%, but those vaccines haven’t reached everyone equally. In Colorado, people who identify as Latino or Hispanic makeup over 20% of the state’s population, but as of May 31, they’ve only received about 9% of vaccines administered. In order to reach people who’ve been left behind, local activists, governments and hospitals have been focusing their efforts on targeted information and smaller, more equitable clinics.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Basalt resident Anabel Meza got her second-dose at a pop-up clinic inside Carbondale’s Fire House with a view of Mt. Sopris.
Meza was one of the first people in line for the shot when the afterwork clinic opened at 4pm. She says she wasn’t able to get vaccinated at any of the mass clinics earlier this year because she works at a local restaurant during the day and couldn’t take time off. Now that she’s vaccinated, Meza says she can finally relax a bit.
“It's exciting, it gives a lot of relief for a lot of us that are willing to do it,” she said. “So yeah, doing it for me, for my family and to protect my customers too.”
Meza found out about the clinic from a post on local Spanish radio station La Tricolor’s Facebook page and she says she was able to convince her brother and sister-in-law to get vaccinated too.
“We lost some family members in Mexico because of it,” she said. “So I was just like, ‘Well, listen, I mean, this has been really hard and tough on our lives and we gotta do something.’”
Garfield County Public Health specialist Carrie Godes helped organize the Carbondale after-hours clinic and others like it. As of May 31, about half of all eligible residents in the county have not been vaccinated yet compared to about 30% in Pitkin and Eagle Counties.
“At this point we're trying to just be more adaptable, making vaccines more equitable and more accessible,” Godes said. “And for us, that really means getting out and moving around.”
The county’s public health team has been vaccinating 50 to 100 people at many of their pop-up clinics from Carbondale to Parachute. These include clinics for high schoolers, inmates at the local jail and those experiencing homelessness. Godes says so far, they haven’t had to waste a single dose.
“We've sent our staff literally walking down streets or going into establishments and trying to just get the shots given out, which is kind of a comical thing to be doing with our nursing staff,” she said.
Local nonprofit Voces Unidas de Las Montañas has also pivoted their vaccine efforts to smaller, more intentional clinics.
“We're not in the healthcare business,” said Executive Director Alex Sanchez, “but we believe that we have to take the vaccine to people and meet people where they're at.”
Since January, the group has been advocating for systemic changes to the healthcare system and working to close the vaccine equity gap for Latinos in all three counties.
“We know that workers, essential workers specifically, some of them have had a hard time finding the vaccine,” Sanchez said. Now the organization is bringing the vaccine directly to job sites and partnering with employment agencies.
“These are landscapers, construction workers, restaurant workers, housekeepers, which are the backbone of the Aspen economy,” he said.
Local resident Dora Del Carmen Pacheco works in a restaurant kitchen in Aspen and recently got her vaccine with Voces Unidas. Pacheco found out about the opportunity from the employment agency that hired her and she says she’d been wanting to get vaccinated for a while.
“I was actually curious about the vaccine at the beginning when they were first giving them out,” Pacheco said. “So I kept asking, you know, ‘Where, where, where should I go to get this done?’”
Pacheco knew several people who got sick with the virus, and then she lost a friend who worked at the St. Regis in Aspen.
“He lived in Carbondale and he died of COVID and he was barely 48 and he was also a healthy person,” she said. “So this was very impactful for me to actually know a friend who passed from COVID.”
Pacheco studied nursing in El Salvador and says she wasn’t afraid of the vaccine itself, but she was worried about signing up for the shot because she doesn’t have her U.S. citizenship or residency yet and she uses a different name at work.
“I was honestly a little scared because I thought they were going to ask me for my documents, but it was so easy that I was able to get my vaccine,” she said. “They walked me through it, and, you know, that took away all the fears that I had.”
Pacheco says there are many people in similar situations to her and she hopes her kids and others in the community are able to get vaccinated and feel the same sense of safety she did after she got her shot.
“I work here in a tourist town and I felt more protected, I felt calmer,” Pacheco said. “And so that makes me feel that my family can also be safe because I'm not going to be bringing this illness home.”
Other vaccine providers in the Valley are learning from stories like Pacheco’s and they’re finding creative ways to reach people.
Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs has been hosting large clinics since the vaccine became available in mid-December, but they’re not seeing the same demand anymore.
“And so our team here has just really tried to think as creatively as possible and just thinking through, ‘What are the barriers?,’” said Stacey Gavrell, the hospital’s Chief Community Relations Officer.
Gavrell says two of the barriers they’ve identified are a fear of the side effects from the vaccine and not knowing how and where to get the shot. In addition to getting the word out about their new “happy hour clinics” from 5 to 6pm, Valley View recently shared a series of video testimonials in English and Spanish about why their staff decided to get vaccinated.
“Healthcare professionals are among the most trusted professions and so people can hear from those they trust that they got their COVID vaccine,” Gavrell said. “And we have some incredible team members from our laundry department who are sharing their reasons too.”
In Eagle County, public health teams have been bringing the shots to bars and food trucks with the aim of reaching 20 to 30-year-olds who may not have been in a rush to get vaccinated. They’ve also focused on mobile home parks and low income neighborhoods where residents typically have less access to healthcare.
“These are communities where we've seen outbreaks over the last year and I've seen higher levels of disease and severe disease,” Birch Barron, the county’s Emergency Management Director said. “So really going into those communities and making it easy.”
When it comes to reaching the ever-elusive “herd immunity,” Barron says the county’s public health teams are more concerned that the numbers keep going up than with getting an exact percentage of residents vaccinated.
“There's no magical herd immunity number,” Barron said. “Every single person who gets vaccinated is another place where that virus tries to spread and can't.”
In Pitkin County, they’re preparing for an influx of tourists this summer. That means bringing more vaccines to restaurants and hotels that hire seasonal workers.
“We aren’t out of the woods yet,” Carly Senst, the county’s vaccine coordinator, said. “There is still quite a lot of work to do to assure that those who could not access our mass vaccination site due to various barriers such as language, access to technology, work or childcare, are able to access the vaccine.”
The county’s vaccine team recently held pop-up clinics at major transportation hubs like the Rubey Park bus station in downtown Aspen and more rural areas like Twin Lakes and Redstone where internet and transportation are less reliable.
“Now we actually get to transition into a pretty human part of the vaccination process,” Senst said. “The bitter side is that we're not doing 3,000 people a week. The sweet side is that we're engaging with our community and we’re finding better ways to serve them.”
Senst says eventually they’ll have to convince people who say they don’t want a vaccine to get the shot, but for now, local activists and health leaders are focused on making sure everyone who wants a shot, gets one.