One year after Routt County’s first vaccinations, the pandemic isn’t over — but that’s not the shots fault, docs say |

One year after Routt County’s first vaccinations, the pandemic isn’t over — but that’s not the shots fault, docs say

The first vaccines in Routt County came in a tall white box with a pink priority boarding sticker and got an armed escort through UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.

After spending the night in a special, ultra-cold freezer — one of 10 in the state at the time — Routt County’s first COVID-19 vaccines were administered Dec. 17, 2020, exactly one year ago Friday.

“I think the biggest impact is the health and just overall lessening of anxiety,” said Dr. Laila Powers, an emergency medicine physician at the hospital who was the first doctor in the county to get vaccinated. “It has been a real boon for all the health care workers and for the patients that we take care of.”

Since that day, nearly 45,000 doses of one of the three COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Routt County.

Last December, the Steamboat Springs School District was forced shift all students online because of outbreaks within schools. A year later, students have been in school, in person, every day.

Wes Hunter, director of pharmacy at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, draws the COVID-19 vaccine into individual shots to be administered on Thursday morning. (Photo by Bryce Martin)

Restaurants weren’t allowed to seat patrons inside at the start of last December, only opening to 25% capacity after vaccines arrived. They haven’t had capacity limits or masking requirements since May.

The vaccine rollout over the past year can be seen in nearly every aspect of life in Ski Town, USA. But the vaccines have not been the elixir many had hoped for, as the pandemic is about to enter its third year.

Officials say that isn’t the shot’s fault, though.

“It hasn’t been the panacea, which is frustrating for health care workers,” said Lauren Bryan, infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “We felt like we’ve got this golden ticket, and then nobody wants our golden ticket. If the world had all taken the golden ticket, we wouldn’t still be in this mess that we’re still in a year later.”

While Routt County has the sixth highest vaccination rate in Colorado — 73% of all residents are fully vaccinated — the county is also just coming out of a spike in cases fueled by the delta variant.

Powers said the world isn’t necessarily how she envisioned it would be a year ago when she rolled up her sleeve.

“I actually thought that, hopefully, we would be further along in this whole pandemic,” Powers said. “It’s sad that it’s become somewhat political in nature.”

The uptake for the vaccine has varied across the U.S., across Colorado and even across Routt County.

While Steamboat Springs has a vaccination rate of 77%, West Routt is at just 43%. However, neither is enough to reach a level of heard immunity that officials had once hoped to achieve.

“The slow uptake of the vaccine in the United States has obviously contributed to the continued challenges with surges, hospitalizations and death,” said Dr. Brian Harrington, Routt County’s chief medical officer. “But we’re in a different place than we were a year ago.”

One of the most obvious differences is for people with compromised immune systems or those in long-term care facilities.

All but one of Routt County’s deaths in these congregate care settings came before the vaccine was available. Death rates among people over 65 years old and with compromised immune systems have plummeted, Harrington said.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Harrington said. “If you’ve been vaccinated, you are 14 times less likely to die from COVID-19.”

One of the most important parts of getting the vaccine is the peace of mind it has given health care workers as they continue on the frontlines, Powers said.

While some hospitals on the Front Range are over capacity when it comes to intensive care beds, UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center has never been to that point, something Bryan credits to the rural nature of Routt County but also the relatively strong vaccine uptake locally.

Breakthrough cases have been more common than initially expected, but Bryan said they see the power of the vaccine to prevent severe illness frequently, sometimes within one family.

“The wife was vaccinated, and the husband wasn’t, and there’s a significant difference in their severity of illness,” Bryan said.

The effectiveness of the vaccine can be seen looking at hospitalization rates, as well. On Thursday, there were 1,227 Coloradans hospitalized because of COVID-19, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. About 86% of them — or 1,051 people — are unvaccinated.

In neighboring Moffat County, where more than half of the population eligible to get a vaccine has not yet done so, 48 people have died because of COVID-19.

In Routt, which has a larger population and much higher vaccination rate, there have been 24 deaths and only a handful since the vaccine became available.

While many people are entrenched in their views, Harrington said he can sometimes convince his patients to change their mind about getting vaccinated. He said providers try to understand why someone is concerned and then provide them with factual information from reputable, medical sources.

“It’s fair for people to have questions, and it’s fair for them to expect answers,” he said. “I understand people have a lot of fear about the vaccine, and so it’s appropriate that we help them get rid of their fear with information.”

When looking at vaccines throughout history, Harrington said they are often one of the most significant advancements in medicine. Vaccines have essentially eliminated debilitating diseases like polio.

“We have vaccines that are highly effective at preventing serious illness and death. The vaccines have a very low risk profile,” Harrington said. “I would probably qualify (COVID-19 vaccines) as a home run.”

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