One seasonal mountain community in San Juan County, Colo., is seeing the benefits of having a small population and close-knit community when it comes to vaccine distribution.
Over one-third of the county’s 700 winter residents have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine with a total of 298 vaccines administered as of Feb. 17.
“Part of our success is because we’re a small community and we have to all volunteer for our first responder infrastructure,” said DeAnne Gallegos, public information officer for the San Juan County, Colo. Public Health Department.
As the least populous county in the state, Gallegos said county residents have to wear many hats.
“We have business owners who are search and rescue or volunteer EMS or school teachers who are part of our volunteer fire department,” she said. “A big portion of our community has been eligible through the phased system because we all do multiple things for a small community.”
Gallegos said they have received a regular delivery of vaccinations and even found themselves in a position to distribute vaccines to neighboring counties.
Others have traveled to San Juan County from as far as Denver, a six-hour trek, to get a vaccine.
“We are sharing with our friends and neighbors not only putting needles in arms and vaccinating those folks from those counties, but literally delivering vaccines to our neighboring counties,” she said.
Gallegos credits the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for the support it has provided to the county’s small public health department through constant communication, rollout plans and delivery systems.
“It’s really been a very tight partnership, so I really think that that is a reflection of the success of the system that the state of Colorado put into place,” she said.
The public health department administers vaccines at the county public health building, which serves as the only distribution site in San Juan County.
Residents can make an appointment for their vaccine through an online scheduling system the health department established.
San Juan County has seen 42 positive COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic, with 10 cases confirmed after New Year’s, resulting in a quarantine period for 60 county residents who were identified after contact tracing.
“It has been pretty amazing to watch us go through the pandemic compared to our neighbors because we literally are a small petri dish so we would see cause and effect immediately,” Gallegos said.
An added benefit in the small county is the preparations already in place from other natural disasters.
According to Gallegos, the public health department utilizes already established lists of contact information for county residents.
Staff members are assigned to contact certain residents on the list in a “grassroots effort” to ensure information is spread regarding the vaccine.
But despite the success, Gallegos said they are facing challenges with a limited number of staff running the public health department.
“Just the amount of work that it takes to organize, schedule, maintain, remind and track is underestimated when you only have a one to five-person staffed public health department in these little rural communities,” she said.
While Gallegos said they respect the state’s rollout plan for vaccines, it would be beneficial for smaller communities to have more freedom in making decisions as to who to vaccinate, she said.
“What would truly benefit our rural, mountain, tourism community would be to have some flexibility to pitch who we think should be receiving the vaccination right now,” she said. “What would truly protect our community is to be able to have the freedom to vaccinate those that would actually be interfacing with outsiders that would bring COVID into our community.”
Gallegos described the situation as a “double-edged sword,” saying the county department understands the importance of having everyone across the state who meets the criteria receive a dose of the vaccine.
“These rural, mountain ski communities are very fluid so of course we want our friends and neighbors to also be vaccinated because we all fluidly move amongst each other’s communities,” she said.
In Banner County, Neb., a rural county with a population of 745, the lack of a vaccination distribution point and no medical facilities hasn’t stopped vaccines from getting into county residents’ arms.
“It’s progressing pretty well here,” Banner County Commissioner Robert Post said.
Banner County is one of 12 counties included in the Panhandle Public Health District which has been spearheading vaccine distribution.
Post said he thinks the county’s smaller population has helped expedite vaccine distribution.
“We’re scheduled to get more vaccines out in the panhandle and so that will speed it up more and it’s just flowed really well,” he said.Hero 1