On Saturday, visitors to the La Plata County Fairgrounds saw the Exhibition Hall transformed into a large-scale COVID-19 vaccination distribution facility. About 300 people received the vaccine during the launch day of the effort to inoculate the community.
The process begins when people sign up on San Juan Basin Public Health’s website and are assigned a time to come to the entrance to the fairgrounds, said Karen Zink, certified nurse practitioner with Southwest Women’s Health Associates and member of the Community COVID-19 Vaccination Team. They are then parked in batches of about 30 based on the time of their appointment.
From there, groups of about 15 people enter the vaccination station at a time through a socially-distanced line outside the exhibit hall. As volunteers check those people in, they are pointed to one of 10 tables inside the hall were teams of two – a vaccinator and a table assistant – administer the vaccine.
The vaccination is completed within about 4 minutes, Zink said.
After receiving the vaccination, patients return to their cars for 15 minutes where they are observed by two or three volunteers to make sure they don’t have an adverse reaction. A Durango Fire and Rescue ambulance with two or three paramedics is parked at the fairgrounds in case a problem arises, she said.
Wheelchairs and assistance are available for those who are mobility-challenged. For now, vaccines are only being administered to people who are at least 70 years old.
“I’m very highly relieved,” said Dolores Mazurkewicz, a resident of La Plata County who received the first step of the vaccine on Saturday afternoon. “Booking it and getting here with the weather, getting the shot, it was like ‘boom.’ It was terrific.”
She said the shot itself was painless.
“Physically, I felt nothing. Psychologically, it’s like, “Good, I’m on my way to being protected,’” she said.
Like the rest of the people who received the vaccine, Mazurkewicz will need to return to the fairgrounds to receive the second dose in exactly three weeks. People who get the vaccine will receive an email or phone call telling them when to return for the second shot.
Zink said the goal in the near future is to get up to 1,000 vaccinations every Saturday, vaccine supply permitting. On Saturday, the center had about 300 doses to administer. Next week, the site will have 500 doses to administer.
The individual vaccinations are prepared in a room above the main exhibit hall. The Pfizer vaccine being administered at the fairgrounds must be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius and has to be cooled at just the right time, and the diluent has to be put in the vial in a certain way and rotated in a certain way – all of which has to be done by hand, she said.
“The dose needs to be extremely precise because if we do a precise draw-up, we can get six or seven doses out of every vial instead of five,” Zink said. “We’re trying to be ever so careful with the vaccine, and we have a wait list of about 50 people in case we see that we’re getting more doses than we thought we would out of the vial.”
The draw-up team that prepares the injections is made up mostly of nurses, including a few aesthetic nurses who would usually be administering injections of Botox, and pharmacists. Another team, in another of the Exhibition Hall’s nooks is in charge of procuring supplies and packing away and storing everything at the end of the day.
Every member of the Community COVID-19 Vaccination Team running the site is a volunteer who has signed up for six months – until the entire community has been vaccinated.
“We have about 85 volunteers on site today. It takes a huge number of volunteers to pull something like this off,” Zink said.
And the list of volunteers includes some familiar Durango faces. For example, Roger Zalneraitis, former executive director of the La Plata Economic Development Alliance, was on parking lot duty, and former Mayor Christina Rinderle had organized an effort to provide the team with donated food and beverages, Zink said.
“The outpouring of community volunteers has been overwhelming,” she said, adding that the response of many volunteers has been one of relief. “There’s finally something we can do.”
The command center for the operation – where volunteers sign in and sign out – is located inside the extension building. Every volunteer is certified through the Medical Reserve Corps, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Volunteers wear identification tags to let authorities know where they are.
On Saturday, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office had also set up a command center at the fairgrounds. Zink said the Durango Police Department is briefed in advance every weekend about what time vaccinations will start and how many people are expected at the center. As of Saturday afternoon, there had been no incidents requiring law enforcement officers to intervene.
The effort to get people signed up for vaccinations has so far been very effective. A message was sent out by SJBPH at 5:10 Thursday evening informing people they could register. Within 52 minutes, all 300 of Saturday’s available slots were filled, she said.
But the team could still use the community’s help. Zink said the process will continue to run smoothly “if we can have neighbors check on the elderly in their neighborhood and help get them signed up for the vaccine and help get them to the vaccination site. ... Please help your neighbors who might not have a computer or might not have the skills to get signed up on the San Juan Basin Public Health website.”