The first day of the community COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Navajo Nation Shiprock Chapter was one for the books.
The Northern Navajo Medical Center and its partners gave about 2,400 vaccine doses to elders, first responders and health care workers on one day – 1,768 of which were administered at the community clinic. The turnout was four times higher than expected, but health professionals dug in and worked from sunrise to sunset to help their patients.
“We know the place we could reach the most people was at Shiprock chapter,” said Chris Percy, director of Community Health Services at the medical center. “We really didn’t know how many people would show up.”
As of Monday, the Navajo Nation recorded more than 27,500 positive COVID-19 cases, not including border-town cases. There have been 977 confirmed deaths, according to the Navajo Department of Health.
The Shiprock region, which includes parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, reported about 4,800 positive cases as of Monday, or about 16,470 cases per 100,000 people.
Since mid-December, the medical center has been vaccinating health care workers and first responders living and working in the community. The first community vaccination clinic held Jan. 6 added people who are 65 or older and who receive care at the hospital to the list.
The event, in Shiprock about 75 miles southwest of Durango, was scheduled to start at 10 a.m. It was a collaborative effort between the Northern Navajo Medical Center, several Navajo Nation departments, the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, the Shiprock Youth Conservation Corps and the Shiprock chapter.
The health professionals expected to administer 400 or 500 vaccine doses and were ready to scale up to 800 doses if necessary, Percy said.
By 5:30 that morning, people were already lining up to receive their first dose of the two-shot vaccine. The line eventually stretched for miles along U.S. Highway 64 in Shiprock toward Hogback, more than 4 miles to the east.
“I just got sucked into the energy of it,” Percy said. “I was just one of the vaccinators giving shots as the vehicles rolled up – seeing many patients I hadn’t seen for months and smiling families, happy to bring their grandmas and grandpas to us to get protection.”
Vehicles in eight lanes passed through immunization stations and into the 15-minute waiting area, where they were observed for any allergic reactions to the vaccine.
The clinic had a team of 20 medical professionals thawing and mixing vaccine doses and a transport team delivering them to the Shiprock Chapter House.
The event was scheduled to stop at 2 p.m., but people continued to come, Percy said.
“We decided we’d just keep vaccinating as long as we had a supply and there was demand,” he said. “The last couple of hours, it was dark. We were vaccinating by vehicle lights and flashlights. We finally ran out of vaccine at 6:53 p.m. ... That was a big, crazy day.”
About 80 high-risk patients and 500 health care workers and first responders received the vaccine at the medical center on the same day, Percy said.
“We planned and planned. ... Just seeing each of the pieces of our team work together so well to serve the community, it was one of those days that you’re going to remember forever,” Percy said.
The Northern Navajo Medical Center has been administering either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to patients, both of which require two doses to complete the vaccination series.
As of Sunday, the medical center administered both doses of the vaccine to about 1,000 people, or 60% of the health care workers and first responders, he said.
The medical center also vaccinated about 3,600 elders ages 65 and older, or about 69% of that patient population, as of Sunday.
“We are excited that there is so much interest in our community in getting this vaccine,” Percy said. “Not everybody wants to get it, and that’s fine. Some people don’t want to rush in and do things early. ... We want to make it available to those that want it.”
This week, everyone who received their first dose Jan. 6 is coming back to finish the process, Percy said.
In the next few weeks, the center plans to reach high-risk populations younger than 65 years old, such as those with asthma or heart disease.
“We haven’t been able to reach the general public yet. We don’t have enough vaccines for that, as we see in the whole country,” he said. “We’re on the same tier system.”
The effort will take months: The medical center serves more than 35,000 adults eligible to receive the vaccine.
Since the pandemic began, thousands of our families have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Percy said.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of loss,” he said. “Many families have been able to manage by pulling together, and many have suffered terrible losses.”
With the ability to offer the vaccine, “we have a hope that by the end of this summer we possibly could return to a more normal way of life,” Percy said.