Yvette Hunt’s reaction to getting the COVID-19 vaccine this past Sunday can best be described as pure elation. “Oh, thank you Black Jesus. And the other Jesus. And God and all his angels,” said the 75-year-old from southeast Denver. “My daughter didn’t get to have her wedding this year. My son and his friend have a house in Fort Collins that I haven’t been able to see except for online. I hope this means we are closer to being able to get out.”
Hunt was one of the nearly 10,000 Coloradans ages 70 and up who received the first dose of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 inoculations at a UCHealth clinic in a giant parking lot near Coors Field this past weekend. The event was one of the largest mass vaccination efforts in the country, and each person who received the vaccine did so without leaving the comfort of their car.
The idea for the large-scale operation came less than a month after the Colorado Rockies made a parking lot just northeast of Coors Field available to UCHealth for vaccination efforts. From there, Richard Zane, MD, the health system’s chief innovation officer, tasked his team with designing a system that would allow them to vaccinate 10,000 people in a weekend. “It was exciting,” said Sarah White, UCHealth’s senior director of innovation and system project management, who helped design the event. “We are always asking, What is the most efficient way to get vaccines into arms? And if we have the supply, we have to find a system that allows us to vaccinate a bunch of people.”
While UCHealth operates a number of clinics that are vaccinating people daily, the organization saw the parking lot as a great opportunity to create a drive-thru setup, which they knew would appeal to a significant segment of the 70 and up population that was looking for limited contact with other individuals, as well as convenience.
The event, though, wasn’t just a free for all. People had to sign up for an appointment ahead of time. UCHealth alerted existing patients to the opportunity. They also coordinated with the state to inform residents in six zip codes around Denver and Aurora about the Coors Field clinic, as well other opportunities for vaccinations at pop-up events and UCHealth locations. The zip codes were chosen in part to get the word out to folks on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. UCHealth also set up a robocall system to reach people without the internet and help them sign up to get the shot.
This past Saturday and Sunday, patients arrived at the clinic’s entrance near 33rd and Blake streets. They were then funneled into a multi-lane system where they checked in before receiving a vaccine, along with a card indicating that they had gotten a first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Verizon provided IT support for the many computers and scanners that were used. On average, it took people about 22 minutes to go through the whole process—and that included a 15-minute observation period, which is mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to make sure patients aren’t having an adverse reaction to the shot. Dr. Zane said a few patients did experience slight dizziness but no one had symptoms any worse than that.
It took some 250 workers to operate the site—many of whom were UCHealth employees who were there as volunteers. “The best part is the interactions with the patients,” said Alejandrina Herrera, a medical assistant educator with UCHealth, who was working at the clinic on Sunday. “We have patients who are in tears as soon as they get the vaccine. Sometimes the son or daughter who drove them here start crying as soon as they see their parent getting it as well.”
Many of the UCHealth employees also shared in the emotion of the day. “Every patient we vaccinate—especially at this age group—is one less person that we might end up seeing in an ICU,” said Kathy Howell, UCHealth’s chief nursing executive, about what it was like for some employees to be inoculating people nearly 11 months after first seeing COVID-19 patients take over ICUs. “They know it helps lessen the demands on them for that. They know how important this is.”
The patients who got shots at the clinic on Saturday and Sunday already have appointments to get a second dose at the same location a few weeks from now. And based on how smoothly the weekend went, White believes the UCHealth team could inoculate some 20,000 in a weekend using the same system. For that to happen, however, the state would need to start receiving more doses of the vaccine from the federal government. Governor Jared Polis has said he expects that number, which is currently about 80,000 a week, to significantly increase in the coming weeks.
UCHealth has also promised to make their plans for the site available to any Colorado health system that wants to see it. While Dr. Zane said on Sunday that none have reached out, National Jewish Health has been holding smaller-scale drive-up clinics for about 500 people a day.
Ultimately, it will take many more efforts like this weekend—as well as the entire Colorado health system working together—to get the majority of the population vaccinated in the coming months. As of Sunday, 220,963 out of about 562,000 Coloradans older than 70 have received the first dose of the vaccine. In total, 366,603 Centennial Staters have gotten the first dose of the vaccine. (The other 150,000-plus recipients are mostly frontline healthcare workers.) Colorado has a population of around 5.7 million people.
But for Hunt and the close to 10,000 people who got vaccinated at the weekend event, the end of the pandemic is starting to appear imminent. “The spa,” said Hunt during her quick visit, “oh, I can’t wait to go to the spa.”