Mesa County Tries To Tackle One COVID Vaccine Gap By Bringing The Shots To Where People Live

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Stina Sieg/CPR News
Alberto Irizarry receives the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine from Hannah Reger, a physician assistant student at Colorado Mesa University. CMU and Mesa County Public Health recently brought the vaccine to 154 residents of independent living communities in the county.

Mary Salinas’ COVID-19 vaccination was a pretty standard thing. The 72-year-old tried to relax as the needle slid into her upper arm. A physician assistant student gave her a little Band-Aid and a description of how sore her arm could be the next few days. It was over in a flash, just like the shots Salinas had seen countless times on the news.

But one thing was different. Salinas received hers in own small apartment, filled with art, including some meticulous black-and-white pieces she drew herself.

She didn’t even have to get out of her easy chair. 

“Oh, it’s wonderful, because I really can’t get out anymore,” she said, surprise still in her voice. 

Salinas lives every day with a lot of pain and limited mobility. Getting the few miles to downtown Grand Junction, where the Two Rivers Convention Center has transformed into Mesa County’s mass vaccination site, just wasn’t in the cards. Instead, Salinas knew the only way she’d get the vaccine was if it came to her.

“And I just didn’t know if you’d ever get around to me,” she said.

Salinas was one of 154 people who recently received the one-dose Johnson and Johson vaccine from a mobile vaccination effort created by Mesa County Public Health and Colorado Mesa University. All recipients are residents of the Grand Junction Housing Authority’s independent living communities, where people live in their own homes but have more support than if they were entirely on their own. 

Mesa County’s program is not the only one in the state — UCHealth has one serving people along the Front Range, and Boulder is doing it too, for instance — but the mobile vaccine clinic is still far from common, especially on the Western Slope. The health department and university hope to bring it to more people who need it in the near future.  

Scott Aker, Grand Junction Housing Authority chief operating officer, kindly joked that he didn’t want to get “too mushy,” but that connecting residents with services they need. “is what it’s all about for us.”

“We’re just thrilled,” he said. 

So was the small crowd gathered outside at the Nellie Bechtel Senior Apartments. A pop-up vaccination site had materialized in the community center, just steps from many seniors’ homes. It felt like a party — a masked, socially distanced party.

When one woman’s name was called up, she clapped her hands together. She was surrounded by her neighbors, many with canes and oxygen tanks.

“Lucky day! Oh yay!” she exclaimed as she walked into the center. Someone joked it felt like “The Price is Right.”  

All the excitement is a big deal for a county where some people still question how real the virus is. 

“Somebody told me it was a conspiracy,” said 68-year-old Dianna Love, with a laugh. She believed it was a hoax for a while. “And then I thought, ‘Oh, that is so stupid.’”

Watching the news helped change her mind, so did talking with her friends. Now, she knows what she’d say to someone who won’t get the vaccine. 

“I tell them: ‘You know what? It's up to all of us to keep other people safe,’” she said.

Love worried she could get her grandkids sick. Salinas, who got the shot in her apartment, was scared she could infect the babies of her home health aides. 

And that’s what these residents kept coming back to: not their health, but everyone else’s, despite their own increased risk. 

“You know, when you look at those that had the most serious consequences from getting COVID, this is the group, right?” said Amy Bronson, who runs CMU’s physician assistant program. As she drove between vaccine events — events she helped make possible — she talked about how isolated many of these seniors have been over the past year.

“And so to be able to know that by getting a vaccine that it’s going to open up some of life for them again, I think it’s just a huge part of their mental and well-being,” she said. 

For perspective: Of the health care workers offered the vaccine in Mesa County, it’s estimated only 40 percent to 60 percent have decided to take it. But the seniors the vaccine that day were not the slightest bit hesitant, especially when they could get vaccinated in the sun on their front patio, like Theresa Montano did. 

“I'm not scared of shots at all,” she told Mita White, the CMU student there to administer the vaccine. “I'm looking forward to this one!”

White, with her friendly, soothing voice, ran down the list of questions she’d been asking everyone that day, including if Montano, 71, was pregnant. 

“I mean, you’re female, so I gotta ask,” White said, as the two women laughed together. “But you would be a medical miracle if you answered ‘yes’ to that one.” 

“You didn’t give me a chance to tell you,” Montano replied. “I’m going to have twins.” 

When it was time for the shot, Montano had her EpiPen at the ready, just in case she had a serious allergic reaction. But the only thing she ended up feeling was relief. 

She thanked White over and over.

“I feel good. I'm so happy!” she said. She described how scary it had been not knowing how and when she’d get her vaccine. “You have to protect everybody, you know, and that's what I'm doing. I'm protecting myself and all my friends and my neighbors.”

She added that she might even restart her weekly coffee club outside, once the weather gets nice.