After short wait, vaccine reaches most vulnerable

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Residents 70 and older begin inoculations as initial-phase threshold could drop to age 65

  • Ridgway resident Melvin Dunn, 97, receives one of the first vaccines for older residents from Ouray County Public Health Department nurse Rebekah Stewart on Tuesday. The county has reached the phase in vaccinations for older residents and is scheduling appointments through online registration. The county is prioritizing residents age 7o and older, and people can also schedule an appointment by calling 970-626-5484. Liz Teitz — Ouray County Plaindealer
    Ridgway resident Melvin Dunn, 97, receives one of the first vaccines for older residents from Ouray County Public Health Department nurse Rebekah Stewart on Tuesday. The county has reached the phase in vaccinations for older residents and is scheduling appointments through online registration. The county is prioritizing residents age 7o and older, and people can also schedule an appointment by calling 970-626-5484. Liz Teitz — Ouray County Plaindealer
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Melvin Dunn didn’t flinch as Ouray County nurse Rebekah Stewart injected his right arm. He calmly stared forward, seeming unfazed by the shot.

“That’s all there is?” Dunn asked afterward, while she helped him button his flannel shirt and pull his jacket back on.

“You’re leading the fight again,” Stewart told the World War II veteran, who turned 97 last summer. Dunn was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Corps and flew two missions on D-Day and 33 missions in France and Germany during the war.

On Tuesday, he and his wife Smiles were some of the county’s first oldest residents to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, as the Ouray County Public Health Agency began immunizing those age 70 and older at the 4-H Center in Ridgway. Receiving the first dose of the vaccine brought some feelings of relief and hope for those who have been distancing themselves for fear of infection since March.

“It feels good, not just from the standpoint of our health but for opening up some of the isolation,” said Smiles Dunn, 92. “We’re hopeful.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Moderna vaccine was 94.1 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 illness in clinical trials. Those benefits far outweighed any concerns about potential side effects, Smiles Dunn said. “At our age, we don’t need (COVID), that’s for sure,” she said.

They’re trying to immunize the oldest residents first, Public Health Director Tanner Kingery said. “It’s a combination of a lot of things,” he said, including age, response to the county’s online vaccine form and “whoever can actually be there during those times.” The county is cross-referencing the online sign-ups with a list of about 900 registered voters who are over 70.

As each person arrived for their appointment Tuesday, scheduled in half-hour increments throughout the day, they had their temperatures taken and were assigned to one of six tables in the 4-H Center, distanced from each other. Each table was prepared with a box of gloves, hand sanitizer, a trash bag and a sharps container for used syringes. The indoor vaccinations were a shift from the initial vaccines given on Dec. 23, when Stewart administered shots to first responders. Then, people were asked to wait in their cars in the parking lot outside the health department office, requiring her to go in and out of the building between each shot to get new syringes and bandages. She administered the first shots in freezing temperatures and snow flurries.

For each recipient Tuesday, she explained the paperwork they needed to fill out and walked them through potential side effects, answering individual questions about any allergies or effects of other medications.

The most common is a sore arm, followed by mild to moderate fatigue, malaise, low fevers and chills, she said. Those symptoms seem to be more pronounced after the second dose of the vaccine, and have been less severe in people over 65, she told them. “If I give 100 vaccines, I can expect five people to have fevers” after the second dose, she said. Those symptoms aren’t cause for concern. “It’s your body making those antibodies and responding to the vaccine,” Stewart said.

“Don’t wear your body down over the next few days,” she advised, and reminded them to continue wearing a mask. “We know that this vaccine will help protect you, but we don’t know if it will protect other people,” she said. “So until we get more people vaccinated and know how it affects transmission, keep wearing your mask.”

The county’s plan is to continue vaccinations at the 4-H Center Tuesday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every week, if the state continues sending enough doses.

Gov. Jared Polis has set a goal of vaccinating all Coloradans over age 70 by Feb. 28, but doing so locally requires receiving a sufficient supply of vaccines. Ouray County has so far received only 200 vaccines, and had already given 100 of those doses by last week. Kingery planned to administer 50 vaccines each on Tuesday and Wednesday and, “assuming we get more vaccines,” another 100 on Thursday. The state is sending two nurses and someone to help with data entry Thursday, he said, making it possible to give more injections, if more vials of the vaccine arrive in time.

Vaccinations are by appointment only, and residents should fill out the online form on the Public Health Agency’s website in order to be contacted when they are eligible.

CLICK HERE TO REACH THAT FORM

The state is mandating the phased administration of vaccines, starting with first responders and health care workers and people over 70, which must be completed before moving on to essential workers.

New federal guidance is expected that would move 65- to 69-year olds into that same group, which Polis said at a press conference Tuesday morning the state would adopt. But in a statement Tuesday night, he said the state has more than 562,000 people over 70 “and based on data-driven goals of saving lives and ending the pandemic, protecting this vulnerable population will have the biggest impact.”

For some of the seniors who were vaccinated Tuesday, the shot was a first step toward returning to normalcy and reuniting with family members after lengthy separations and limited contact. They’ll return to the 4-H Center in early February for the second dose.

Ridgway resident Jean Bosworth, 95, whooped with joy after receiving her first dose. “It’s wonderful,” she said. Waiting for the vaccine “seemed like forever,” she said, “and I was just delighted when I got the phone call.”

“I’m relieved,” said David Park, 84, who lives on Log Hill. He said he was “amazed” at the quick turnaround time. He filled out the county’s vaccine form about a week ago and got a call to schedule his appointment shortly after.

While he has no immediate plans to travel anytime soon, he’s looking forward to eventually being able to reunite with family. His wife, children and grandchildren are in New England, and her plans to come back to Ridgway have been on hold for several months due to the virus. “Both of us are in a situation where we don’t want to get on an airplane,” he said, “so I’ve been alone longer than I’d like.”

“I’d like to be able to travel and see my kids more often, and get around and see friends,” he said. His wife hasn’t heard yet when she’ll get the vaccine in Massachusetts, he said.

“Our county is way ahead,” said Randy Loftis, 75. He and his wife, Liz, came to get their vaccines alongside her mother, Bonnie Lile of Ouray. “Of our friends and neighbors in other states, we’re the first to get it,” he said.

“It feels really great,” said, Liz Loftis, 71. “My mom, she’s 93, and one of our main concerns has been her health. We’ve taken extra precautions, we didn’t want her to get sick, so this is a great step forward.” When they run errands or go grocery shopping, Lile doesn’t go inside with them to avoid exposure, she said, and she’s looking forward to regaining that sense of normalcy.

Smiles Dunn said she’s most looking forward to “the ability to not be shut away.”

“Hopefully it will open some doors,” she said. As more people get vaccinated and more in-person interaction is possible, “it’s going to be sort of a metamorphosis this spring, green leaves and new hope.”

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Email erin@ouraynews.com to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work.