A COVID-19 vaccination event in Denver was overrun Saturday when JeffCo Public Schools alerted 14,000 employees that 200 extra doses of vaccine were available to those who could get to the National Western Complex within an hour.
Hundreds of people rushed to the complex on Humboldt Street to try to get the vaccine around 5 p.m. Saturday. Traffic backed up at the exit and into Interstate 70. Drivers wouldn’t let others merge into the line. Some people leapt from their cars and ran the final stretch to the building. One man arrived in a bathrobe; he hadn’t stopped to put on a shirt.
“I saw one woman open her car door, and her husband was like, ‘Go, go go!’ and she just took off running,” said James MacIndoe, a teacher at Standley Lake High School.
MacIndoe got the alert just before 5 p.m. and was in the line of traffic at the National Western Complex by 5:28 p.m., he said. It was dark, and a digital road sign directed drivers to tune their car radios to an AM station that was broadcasting a scratchy, looped message about the vaccination process.
“It was very post-apocalyptic,” he said. “…Passenger doors are flying open, people are bailing out of cars and running into the building.”
The scramble came at the end of a 5,000-person, appointment-only vaccination event organized by SCL Health for people over the age of 70. The event was focused on vaccinating people of color and low-income seniors in the neighborhoods around the National Western Complex, SCL Health senior vice president Megan Mahnke said Sunday.
The supply of vaccine fluctuated all day — going up when people with appointments failed to show and going down when they arrived late or when walk-in patients were accepted, something organizers tried to accommodate as much as possible. But by the end of the day, it was clear there would be extra doses, Mahnke said, so organizers offered the limited extra supply to several community partners, including JeffCo Public Schools, to ensure the doses were not wasted.
“We told them they could do a targeted invite to some of their teachers, and they did a mass invitation to 5,000-plus teachers,” Mahnke said. “It was massive. We had hundreds of teachers show up … They just came from all over.”
The district sent the alert out to all 14,000 employees because district officials wanted to be fair and needed to act quickly, Tammy Schiff, chief communications officer, said Sunday.
“The quick decision was, what is the fairest, most equitable and fastest way we could get the message out so we could get even 200 people there,” Schiff said. The school district does not have a prioritized list of which employees should get the vaccine before others, she said, and there wasn’t time on Saturday night to parse that out.
“In the heat of the moment — if the risk was wasting vaccines if not enough people had been there, that’s a bigger problem than, ‘Oh, we had a lot of people and we had to turn some people away,’” she said.
Between 30 minutes and an hour after the first notification, the district sent another, telling anyone who was not already in the building to go home. Schiff said she believes as many as 500 district employees received the vaccine after the first alert, even though the initial estimate of extra doses was 200. Mahnke could not say how many extra does were administered, because the supply fluctuated so frequently. All 5,000 doses were given to patients, she said.
“We had to get to the point where we were like, ‘The event is closed,’” Mahnke said. “They were trying to bump folks who already had appointments. We didn’t walk out of there until 10:30 last night. We tried to accommodate as many as we could. With all our other partners, they got it. This was just a misstep.”
Teachers, child care providers and Colorado residents ages 65 to 69 are allowed to begin receiving coronavirus vaccinations on Monday as the state expands from vaccinating just health care workers, first responders, residents of long-term care facilities and those over the age of 70. Extra doses, however, can always be given to anyone to keep them from being wasted.
When teacher Jessica Post got the first alert Saturday, she almost didn’t go — she didn’t want to take the vaccine from someone who needed it more. But she lived 10 minutes from the vaccination site, so she figured she’d at least try.
In the traffic outside, she too saw people running into the building, others refusing to let cars merge in front of them.
“It was like Black Friday or something,” she said. “Everyone was out for themselves.”
She and MacIndoe both made it inside and received the vaccine. The center was out of clipboards and short on pens, so those waiting filled out medical forms by scribbling on whatever they could and passed pens around, MacIndoe said. The chaos calmed as the crowd was funneled into established lines and waiting areas.
When the medical providers rolled a cart of vaccines into her area, Post and those around her were jubilant. After receiving her shot, Post waited for the required 15-minute observation period before leaving. The woman next to her bawled the whole time.
“She was calling everyone she knew, and people were taking pictures, and there was this energy of people being ecstatic and relieved and happy, just on cloud nine,” Post said.
Post felt like she’d won the lottery. She felt overwhelmingly relieved, and a little bit guilty.
“There’s just been a feeling, and it’s been like this the whole pandemic at a systemic level, a feeling of uncertainty,” she said. “Our district has gone back and forth on decisions, and the protocols change constantly. I’m also a coach, and every day there is some new thing we can do or we can’t do. So it just feels like when something like this comes up, you have to take advantage of it, instead of being patient and waiting your turn.”
JeffCo Public Schools went back to in-person and hybrid learning a couple of weeks ago, MacIndoe said, which raised teachers’ anxiety. He’s grateful he was able to receive the first dose of the vaccine Saturday, and relieved to have a set appointment for the second dose.
“Everybody is really desperate for these vaccines,” he said. “We’ve been back in classrooms for two weeks. And it feels very unsafe to be in a classroom full of kids without the vaccine.”
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