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What’s Changing Coloradans’ Minds About Getting Vaccinated? We Visited A Greeley Clinic To Find Out

Matt Bloom
Chris Garcia grabs a water bottle from a mobile vaccine clinic staff member in Greeley. The clinic administered 79 doses last Friday.

For months, Lauren Marchesi and Chris Garcia put off getting a COVID-19 vaccine. The Fort Collins couple worried about how quickly the vaccines were deployed and questioned the science behind them, both said.

Then came the mandates.

Marchesi’s school, Colorado State University, recently announced it would require all staff and students to provide proof of vaccination or undergo regular testing. A new job Garcia interviewed for also now requires it. Considering their options, the two relented and signed up for one of the state’s mobile clinics at the Greeley Mall last week.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Marchesi said while waiting in line to get her first shot.

They are part of a swell of vaccine-hesitant Coloradans who have changed their minds in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations climb due to the delta variant. Weekly vaccine administration numbers have jumped to about 60,000 a week — more than 20% above their lowest point in early July, according to state data.

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Matt Bloom
Patients line up at the mobile clinic in Greeley to get their COVID-19 vaccines. The number of people getting immunized across the state each week increased to about 60,000 in early August.

Marchesi and Garcia said catching the disease doesn’t worry them too much. They likely wouldn’t have shown up if not for the potential consequences of dropping out of school or losing out on a job opportunity. They made the 40-minute drive from Fort Collins to Greeley to claim two $100 Wal-Mart gift cards the state is giving away as part of a program aiming to drive more turnout.

“Might as well, doesn’t hurt,” Garcia said.

Colorado doesn’t ask patients their exact reasoning for getting vaccinated. But state officials cite multiple factors as key drivers, including new financial incentives, mandates and the threat of the delta variant. An informal KUNC survey of patients at the recent Greeley Mall clinic found similar reasons.

Madeline Ortega stood at the back of the line sporting a floral cloth mask. She got sick with COVID-19 earlier this year and recovered, so she never felt the need to get vaccinated. (The CDC recommends everyone get vaccinated, whether they’ve had the disease or not).

As a physical therapist at a local nursing home, Ortega faced the prospect of losing her job if she didn’t get a shot, she said. Nursing homes are one of a growing number of workplaces requiring staff to get shots. Dozens of hospitals, local governments and private businesses have recently announced similar mandates.

Ortega also worries about catching the disease again and spreading it to an elderly patient.

“I’m just going to do it and I think I should be okay,” she said. “I hope I’ll be okay.”

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Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
Weekly vaccine administration numbers have plummeted from their spring high, but are increasing again. *Numbers from the most recent two-week reporting window may be subject to change.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says all three vaccines with emergency use authorization are safe and effective. The vast majority of recent serious cases and deaths have been among unvaccinated residents.

More than 72% of the eligible population in Colorado has gotten at least one dose.

The late summer jump in vaccine interest has come as a welcome surprise to most public health officials. A multi-million-dollar lottery effort in June failed to drive a big increase in turnout. By early July, appointments had slowed to their lowest point yet.

Now they’re picking back up. Larimer County is seeing more than 250 first doses per day on average. That’s the highest number since early June, said Dr. Jared Olson, an epidemiologist with the county’s health department. 

“We would love to see this move higher to 500 or more first doses a day to maximize the protection for our community and do everything we can to preserve hospital capacity,” he said. 

Olson thinks there are likely a number of factors contributing to the bump. 

Fridays in particular have seen a jump in first- dose vaccine appointments, which could mean that employers are encouraging more workers to get vaccinated late in the week. 

“I take that to be indicative of people who are concerned about not having vacation time or sick time in order to accommodate the potential side effects of the vaccination,” Olson said. 

The state is preparing to start administering millions of booster shots this fall, which will likely add to the number of doses going in arms. This week, Gov. Jared Polis said the state has enough supply to offer boosters without interrupting efforts to get people their first shots.

“That means that health care workers and older Coloradans will the be the first eligible,” Polis said. “They’re the first ones we will be offering it to (in September).” 

READ MORE: COVID-19 Booster Shots Will Roll Out In September In The U.S.

Regardless of the reasons, the increase of first doses comes at a good time. While cases and hospitalizations in Colorado aren’t rising as much as they are in other states, such as Florida and Louisiana, there’s still concern about a strain on local hospitals due to the delta variant.

“Delta is no joke. People are still getting sick and people are dying,” said Stacy Suniga, a vaccine coordinator with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “So I think more people are starting to give more thought to (getting vaccinated).”

As part of her work with the state and the Latino Coalition of Weld County, Suniga helped coordinate the recent mobile clinic at the Greeley Mall. She wanted to time it to catch residents' back-to-school shopping.

In all, 79 people came out to get their first doses.

The spot is also home to local Hispanic-themed stores that are popular, she said.

“We’re really targeting the hard-hit populations of Latinos where the (vaccination) numbers are lower,” Suniga said. “We want to raise that, so we're kind of trying to meet that community where they are.

Matt Bloom
Windsor brothers Casey and Riley Nelson got vaccinated on their twelfth birthday.

Underneath a nearby tent, patients sit for their 15-minute observation window. Staff hand out bottles of water to help beat the heat. Many say employers are a big driver for finally getting vaccinated, but the reasons go beyond that.

Twins Casey and Riley Nelson are here on their birthday. They just turned 12 a few hours before the clinic, and the two are ecstatic to finally be old enough to get vaccinated.

“I say everyone should get it,” Casey said. “The only part that I didn’t really like is when the thing actually went in. It just felt weird.”

“Same and we don’t have to wear masks,” Riley added.

Their mom Tammy quickly interjected with a correction.

“Their school does require masks now,” she said. “But I also think that if a classroom gets caught or a group gets quarantined because they're vaccinated, they won't have to be quarantined. So that's good too.”

The family drove from Windsor to get their hands on the clinic’s $100 Wal-Mart gift cards.

Would they get to spend the extra money on birthday presents? Casey and Riley looked at their parents and shrugged.

Nearby, Henry Arrutia says he’s been skeptical of the science behind the vaccines, but his faith ultimately brought him out.

“I was thinking about it for a couple of weeks, you know, but today, you know, I just felt that power, you know, to just say, hey, I need to take it before something really happens in my household,” he said.

Sitting next to him, his girlfriend Teresa Mendoze says she is unvaccinated and wants to stay that way for now despite the risks.

“Just reading about the side effects, I’m good for now,” she said.

She plans to stay at home more often until the delta variant subsides.

Arrutia says even though he changed his mind, he supports her choice.

“It’s a personal decision,” he said. “I support her.”

I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.
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