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Pitkin County’s COVID vaccination campaign begins with medical staff

Aspen Valley Hospital CEO: It’s a sign of light in what has seemed like continual darkness

Aspen Valley Hospital emergency department physician Dr. Greg Balko received the first vaccine shot administered Thursday by Amy Behrhorst, PA-C, employee health practitioner.
Dan Bayer / Courtesy Aspen Valley Hospital

Though he was the first person in Pitkin County to receive the COVID-19 vaccine Thursday, Dr. Greg Balko wasn’t feeling the weight of history when the needle entered his arm.

Instead, the Aspen Valley Hospital emergency room physician said he felt a great tonnage of accumulated fear and anxiety finally lift after 10 months on Pitkin County’s COVID-19 frontlines.

“It’s the anxiety of every time you walk into a (hospital) room and you wonder if today is the day you’re going to get it,” Balko said Thursday. “(The vaccination) definitely provides a sense of security and hope.



“Maybe this is the beginning of the end … (and us) getting through this pandemic.”

On Wednesday, AVH received 100 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which must be kept in ultra-cold storage, from the state and began distributing them Thursday at noon, according to CEO Dave Ressler and spokeswoman Jennifer Slaughter. Ressler said he was in the room when Balko and others were vaccinated and that the atmosphere was filled with excitement, hope and a sense of optimism for the future. There were a few tears as well, he said.



“I think today is a turning point in our battle against the virus,” Ressler said. “It’s a sign of light in what has seemed like continual darkness.

“Today is a historic day.”

The first phase of the vaccination, according to a plan approved by the state public health department, targets health care workers who have direct, prolonged contact with COVID-19 patients and staff and residents of long-term care facilities like Whitcomb Terrace near AVH. The second half of the first phase this winter will inoculate health care workers with less direct and shorter contact with COVID-19 patients, those who work in home health, hospice and dental facilities as well as first responders including paramedics, firefighters and police officers.

Phase 2 is scheduled to begin in the spring and will focus on residents age 65 and older, people with conditions that exacerbate COVID-19 like obesity, diabetes, heart, lung and kidney diseases and cancer and those who regularly interact with the public as part of their job, like grocery workers, or those who work in “high density settings.”

Phase 3 will likely begin this summer and include anyone between the ages of 18 and 64 who was not included in the previous phases.

“It really is exciting that it’s happening,” said Jordana Sabella, Pitkin County’s interim public health director. “It’s really good news that we could use right now.”

Aspen Mayor Torre agreed.

“(Today) will go down in the record books as a milestone for sure,” he said. “I’m looking at it as a turning point in this battle.”

Pitkin County’s COVID-19 case numbers, however, continued to rise Thursday, which also meant residents must continue to wear masks, socially distance, limit social gatherings and get a free local test if even mild symptoms arise, Sabella said.

“We’re still seeing an increase in numbers,” she said.

Pharmacy technician Chris Maciag draws out the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine Thursday at Aspen Valley Hospital.
Dan Bayer / Courtesy Aspen Valley Hospital

Pitkin County reported between 10 and 22 new positive COVID-19 cases per day between Dec. 8 and Dec. 16, according to local epidemiology data. The county has added 174 new cases in the past two weeks with a total of 738 cases reported since March 1.

The local incidence rate — based on a population of 100,000 — has been way above Red level restrictions for most of November and all of December so far. As of Wednesday, it stood at 979 and must fall to below 350 for at least two weeks for it to be considered within Orange restriction levels. The incidence rate hit a high of 1,103 on Tuesday, according to the local data.

However, Pitkin County’s positivity rate, which measures the amount of testing being done in a community, has plummeted during the past 10 days.

After hitting a high of 11.6% on Dec. 3 and 4, it dropped to 6.4% Wednesday because of increased testing in Aspen and the county in general, Sabella said. If the rate hits 15% for even one day, the state would move Pitkin County to Red level restrictions immediately.

If three people in a day with Pitkin County addresses are hospitalized with COVID-19 — whether here at Aspen Valley Hospital or anywhere else in the state — the same thing will happen. One person was hospitalized at AVH as of Wednesday with COVID-19, according to local epidemiology data.

The vaccine’s arrival in Pitkin County generated excitement Thursday from local officials and AVH employees alike who have dealt every day of the past 10 months with the pandemic, with nearly everyone speaking of the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.”

“It’s such a relief to have an end in sight,” said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock. “I think ‘historic’ is a good word for it.”

Still, he pointed out that Pitkin County’s rate of vaccination for some diseases is below the state average, which could pose issues for local acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine here.

“I don’t know what’s driving that,” Peacock said, “but it does cause some concern.”

Respiratory therapist Kim Thompson, left, prepares Thursday to receive her COVID-19 vaccination from Amy Jo Westerman, RN, at Aspen Valley Hospital.

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said she looked into school data on the subject about a year and a half ago and found that, for example, the measles vaccine rate in some area schools is below what’s needed for herd immunity.

“I do have a concern that our community may have some resistance to the vaccines,” McNicholas Kury said. “I continue to think that vaccines are probably one of the greatest success stories of modern medicine.”

Neither McNicholas Kury nor Peacock said they’d heard anything specific locally from residents concerned about or refusing to want to take to the vaccine.

Balko, who said he watched a colleague nearly succumb to the virus in the early days, emphasized Thursday that the vaccine is safe, effective and necessary for the vast majority of residents.

“I really encourage the public to go out and get the vaccines,” he said. “The only way to beat (the virus) is if large numbers of people go out and get vaccinated.”

Kim Thompson, a respiratory therapist at AVH, said she’s seen a lot in her 40-year career, including the early days of the HIV epidemic, and that while COVID-19 didn’t necessarily scare her, she was excited about the vaccine. The technology behind the mRNA-based Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been in development for 10 years and has proved more effective than experts thought, she said.

“I had a shot at 3:30 (p.m.),” Thompson said late Thursday afternoon. “I feel fine. I feel good. My arm doesn’t even hurt. I feel really positive about it.”

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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