Vaccine hesitancy is not common in Routt County now, but wider vaccine availability could change that

Kevin Kleckler survived a bout with COVID-19 late last year, and on Monday, the Hayden School welding teacher got the first dose of the vaccine. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith can sum up the amount of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy she is seeing right now with one word: “None.”

With vaccines in short supply and strong demand for the shots — Smith’s inbox is regularly flooded with emails from people looking for information about when and where they can make an appointment — the county is still in a phase of really high acceptance.

A vaccine clinic scheduled for Friday at Steamboat Christian Center had already filled all 300 appointments by Thursday morning after being announced Wednesday afternoon. The Saturday clinic is full too, and the Sunday clinic at the Routt County Fairgrounds in Hayden is filling up quickly.

“We have seen really good uptake of the vaccine, which is great,” Smith said.

A positive sign locally is the number of people 70 and older who have received at least their first dose of the vaccine. That number reached 78% of residents in that group as of Wednesday morning.

The county also has seen high vaccination rates among teachers, with about 60% of South Routt School District employees, 66% of Hayden School District employees and more than 70% of Steamboat Springs School District employees having received their first dose. Several of the smaller schools in the county are at or near 100% vaccination among teachers and other staff.

Steamboat Springs School District teachers proudly show off their vaccinated arms following their first dose of the COVDI-19 vaccine Friday morning at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. Pictured left to right are Elissa Chapman, second grade teacher at Soda Creek Elementary School; Amy Piva, eighth grade language arts and social studies teacher at Steamboat Springs Middle School; Charlie Leech, science teacher at Steamboat Springs High School; and Allie Sabat, physical education teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary School. (UCHealth/courtesy)

But to the west, in the Moffat County School District, just 38% of employees were vaccinated when the district held two different clinics earlier this year, the Craig Press reported last month. District Superintendent Scott Pankow said he thinks that number is likely higher, as the district is not tracking if staff members are vaccinated on their own.

At a Feb. 12 clinic, just a dozen district staff showed up to receive their shots, leaving the district far short of the 70% to 80% vaccination mark that Moffat County Public Health Nurse Olivia Scheele told the Craig Press would be ideal.

Pankow didn’t want to speculate about potential reasons for the difference between counties, simply saying, “It is two different communities, and I think you are going to find variations in every community.”

Vaccination rates vary wildly across Colorado, and some of the differences have to do with supply, as some counties, such as Routt County, have received a slightly higher allotment of vaccines than its population would suggest, while others have been seemingly shorted, according to state vaccine distribution data.

But polls also have shown there are a significant number of people who are hesitant about getting the vaccine. A January poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 31% of people favored waiting and seeing how things are going with vaccinations before they get it, while another 20% of people said they would not get the vaccine or would only get it if required.

Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection control and prevention at UCHealth, said it is not uncommon to see people hesitant to get any vaccine, let alone one for a novel virus that was developed rather rapidly.

“There is sort of a level of skepticism toward vaccination in general,” Barron said.

She said the failure of the 1976 swine flu vaccine, which was pulled after cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome were found in 10 states, has contributed to a lot of the hesitancy around the yearly flu vaccine. But there are other connections between a vaccine and a disease that are simply not based in fact.

For example the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine has long been associated with autism, though the initial research on the topic has been thoroughly discredited and retracted from medical journals because the research was shown to be “completely flawed,” Barron said.

“But that lives in the world, this sort of thought and fear about vaccination safety or bad side effects,” Barron said. “I don’t think the skepticism or some of the hesitancy with the coronavirus vaccine is any different.”

Social media and the sheer amount of information available to people — a lot of it wrong — only makes things harder for people as they try to parse out what information they should believe, Barron said.

How fast the vaccines were developed has been one cause for concern among skeptics, and Barron said she too was eager to get her hands on clinical trial data to ensure the process was not rushed.

“Once I did, I felt very comfortable with how it was done,” Barron said. “There were a lot of people independent of the FDA, the CDC, etc., that looked at the data — people like me that look at data all the time — and felt very reassured by the clinical trial design and the outcomes that they measured.”

The key to fast vaccine development lies in incredible amounts of money and resources devoted to accessing patients for trials, as well as the high disease prevalence across the world, which ensures people in clinical trials are actually exposed to the virus. Barron said if a clinical trial for a new measles vaccine was done now, it would take a much longer time to complete it, because the prevalence of that disease is so low.

To get ahead of potential vaccine hesitancy, Routt County is planning to add a seventh commitment of containment to get vaccinated, complete with another poster created by local artist Jill Bergman. Local public health officials are also working with various organizations to get quality information about the vaccine to people, even in other languages, hoping to head off misinformation.

Asking people directly what concerns them about the vaccine and helping them get proper information about it are two big ways to mitigate hesitancy, Barron said. Another strategy is finding people who are prominent in various communities or social groups and using them to influence others who trust them.

Barron said she has seen this play out with her own mother.

“It was her friend, not her infectious disease daughter, who actually convinced her that (the vaccine) was important,” Barron said, adding that when one of her mother’s group of friends got the vaccine, they all arranged to help each other get it.

Smith said the addition of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine could also help, and public health wants to make it clear that people should get whatever vaccine they can.

While efficacy rates for the first two vaccines on the market, Pfizer and Moderna, were both over 90%, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine has seen lower efficacy rates. But public health officials said this does not matter. All three vaccines will protect from severe disease, and it isn’t fair to compare the efficacy rates because the clinical trials were done at different times.

Moderna and Pfizer trials were conducted before November 2020, before many of the COVID-19 variants started popping up, and there was a relatively lower case incidence in the U.S., compared to when Johnson and Johnson conducted its trials.

“Even though it looks lower, it’s still really high,” Barron said. “At the end of the day, the key thing is that all of them have shown that they keep you out of the hospital, and they keep you from dying. You ask me, that’s the money.”

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