Back in March, April or May, a visitor to San Miguel County’s mass vaccination center in the Telluride Intermediate School gym could have been forgiven for forgetting that they were about to get a shot.
Public health workers, crinkly eyes hinting at the welcoming smiles behind their masks, issued warm greetings and friendly instructions. Bob Marley tunes emanated from the public address system and community members engaged in socially distant “elbow high-fives” with their vaccine providers.
Some likened getting a COVID-19 vaccination in Telluride this past spring to the last day of ski season or the old Black Bean Sauté mornings that KOTO used to have — one of those fun communal gatherings that small mountain towns do so well.
Now, with summertime well underway, work by local public health officials and health care providers to get shots in arms is relying on a more nuanced, personalized approach, according to county public health director Grace Franklin.
It’s important work, because while nearly 80 percent of San Miguel County residents ages 12 and over are fully vaccinated, those rates are much lower across much of the Western Slope.
It’s a situation that has led to increased COVID rates regionally, which in turn has put pressure on regional hospitals.
“On the Western Slope, our hospitals are still extremely strained, because we have low vaccination rates on the Western Slope as a whole and with the Delta variant becoming the dominant variant,” Franklin said. “We've seen people get turned away at the ERs in Montrose and Grand Junction, or trouble placing people in beds quickly for traumatic events. COVID isn’t going away, but it is becoming hyper-focused on these really niche groups.”
Within San Miguel County, Franklin noted that there are “clusters” of people that are not vaccinated, and said that challenges exist for public health officials and health care providers in addressing hesitancy.
Those challenges include the politicization of the virus, social media-fuelled misinformation and general human behavior, she said.
Franklin cited the “adopter bell curve,” a term in sociology that refers to how we humans adopt over time to a new innovation, idea or technology.
In the same way that some people were quick to embrace smartphones (cohorts called “innovators” and “early adopters”) and others held off (“late adopters” and “laggards”), so it goes with an innovation like the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Thinking about early adopters, these are people who are trusting of public health advice. We have a really high group of them here and that’s why we had such high rates early on. There are always going to be the late adopters, who have questions about the vaccine and very valid concerns where either they don’t have access to reliable sources or they just need more time to process,” Franklin said.
According to Franklin, for still another group, the key issue in whether they would get the vaccine or not was convenience.
While Franklin noted that addressing the convenience group has been relatively straightforward, outreach to others remains ongoing.
“Overall, we realize that people have questions and it takes time for some groups to take up things, especially newer medical choices,” Franklin wrote in a pre-interview email. “Based on hesitancy data, we have focused our efforts on supporting the local medical centers to provide vaccine, providing clear and consistent communication and education about vaccines, and being present as a trusted group within our communities.”
In her interview with the Daily Planet, Franklin added: “The research shows that people have higher trust in their medical provider and they like having that intimate, one-on-one time to have their questions answered and not being ‘on show’ at these large mass clinics. That’s a turn-off for a lot of people. So how do we address that?”
Franklin pointed out that while the mass vaccination clinic in the school gym has finished, there are still vaccination clinics taking place, “but they are smaller and without fanfare.”
And, she said, local health care professionals have amped up the time they are spending with patients concerned or hesitant about getting vaccinated.
“It’s all about creating that space for in-depth conversations,” said Franklin. “Some of our health care providers in the county have spent 30-40 minutes doing motivational interviewing about the vaccines.”
Overall, though, Franklin said she and her colleagues are proud of their efforts and those of healthcare providers countywide.
As of Tuesday, 78 percent of San Miguel County residents ages 12 and over had been fully vaccinated, while 86.9 percent had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
The figures put the county second in the state for vaccine uptake, behind only tiny San Juan County, which has fully vaccinated 86 percent of its population of 800.
“I think we have done a great job as a county as a whole for vaccinations,” Franklin said. “We should be very proud of what we have achieved. Folks showed up across the board and the result is really remarkable.”