AURORA | Not long ago, Maria Perez wasn’t sure about the COVID-19 vaccine.
The 69-year-old said through a translator Tuesday that she had heard it might somehow pose “danger” for her to get the shot because she’d already had a mild case of the virus in November.
But her doctor reassured her. On Tuesday, Perez brought along other elder family members and rolled up her sleeve for the first course of an inoculation at the Village Exchange Center.
The hub for north Aurora denizens had launched a vaccination “pop-up” site tailored to reach low-income senior citizens in the area, who often are people of color, immigrants and refugees.
So far, south Aurora and northern Centennial neighborhoods generally enjoy the highest vaccination rates of 65 and older residents compared to the rest of the city. That’s in part because the vaccine rollout has benefited long-term care facilities, healthcare workers and nursing home residents, who tend to be white and wealthier.
Experts and community leaders have said that low-income Aurorans, including those in north Aurora’s lower-income, diverse neighborhoods, have proved particularly hard to vaccinate for a slew of reasons: little access to healthcare, language barriers, distrust and more.
Community organizations like the VEC have taken matters into their own hands, and they’ve turned to the pop-up sites to close the gaps.
With approval from the state health department, other churches and resource centers have also quickly launched vaccination events. So far, they’ve seen mixed results.
Pop-up site organizers and neighborhood doctors told the Sentinel that Aurora’s immigrant communities in particular hold widely diverse opinions about the vaccine. They said they’re battling a tide of misinformation and skepticism about the vaccine that’s probably limiting the success of inoculation efforts in north Aurora.
In recent weeks, many new pop-up sites and equity-minded clinics have focused on the 80010 and 80011 zip codes on the East Colfax corridor, with special allotments of vaccines and staff from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
These new vaccination initiatives are focusing on residents aged 65 and older for the time being, following Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide vaccination plan.
Long lines or open lobbies
At St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 16250 E. Colfax Ave., Ethiopian immigrants and others streamed into a drive-thru pop-up clinic despite frigid weather.
Teguo Daniel Djoyum, who helped organize the event, said CDPHE allotted about 300 vaccines and sent staff to give the shots. The pop-up used every shot and had to turn about 70 people away.
“The response from the community was huge,” Djoyum said.
Himself an immigrant from Cameroon, he employs his Master’s degree in public health to volunteer for immigrant communities when he’s not working on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
He said organizers used WhatsApp chats in local languages to galvanize awareness among African immigrants.
Meanwhile, the VEC’s pop-up Tuesday administered just 75 vaccines over the course of five hours. At 12:30 p.m., elderly residents trickled into the basement, where volunteers and staff stood waiting. The pop-up proved to be popular with Korean residents.
“It wasn’t a blow-out turnout by any means, but like we said, we had a six-day turnover to make it happen,” said Catharina Hughey, the VEC’s director of operations and programs.
She emphasized that CDPHE was only able to give her a few days advance notice that their pop-up was green-lighted, leaving little time to spread the word.
And PJ Parmar said he’s waiting for serious interest from some communities at Mango House, 10180 E. Colfax Ave. Parmar is a prominent doctor serving Aurorans hailing from Burma and Nepali to the Congo and Iraq.
His regular clinic, Ardas Family Medicine, has set up shop in the Mango House lobby to dole out shots, but only for residents of the 80010 zip code. Five or six weeks after receiving vaccines, he thinks some communities remain skeptical of the inoculations.
“I was waiting for the line out the back and it’s not there yet,” he said Monday. “We have not had success yet.”
Nepali residents are generally “fans of the vaccine,” Parmar said. Burmese residents are a mixed bag, while Somali, Sudanese and Congolese residents typically aren’t seeking out vaccines at Ardas.
“They’ve been skeptical about the whole thing all along,” he said.
At the same time, Parmar says the clinic is “discriminating” against wealthier residents not from the neighborhood. He emphasized that they’re not discarding vaccines; the clinic opens up availability at the end of the day to a broader group of locals, he said.
“We’ve been turning away a heck of a lot of callers and emailers because we want people who don’t call and don’t email,” he said. “We’re turning away the more privileged folks because we’re serving the 80010.”
On Tuesday, a handful of senior citizens sat in plastic chairs in the Mango House lobby, while Johnny Moo administered shots of the Moderna vaccine.
Ruth McDonald, 68, beamed when her husband received his first dose.
“This is marvelous — I just can’t believe this. We just walked in here,” she said.
McDonald and her husband, Larry Jacobs, live just blocks from Mango House. The couple swung by the clinic after hearing about it on the news, on their way home from a radiation treatment for McDonald, who has cancer. Neither had been able to find a vaccine for weeks at local pharmacies or through Denver Health, McDonald’s health care provider.
“He’s 79. So he’s been qualified for several weeks and just couldn’t find any place to get a shot,” she said of her husband. Denver Health hadn’t been able to vaccinate her yet, she said, because they needed to supervise her for days in a hospital to treat any serious side effects she might have.
Targeting hard-to-reach residents
Parmar is relying purely on word-of-mouth to spread awareness, he said, because more “privileged” people are more tapped into social media. They also tend to snatch up registrations when they’re offered in advance, so he’s only offering walk-ins to locals.
That’s a similar tact taken by pop-up organizers.
At the Village Exchange Center, organizers followed Parmar’s insistence that requiring registration in advance bars the very hard-to-reach residents they’re trying to inoculate. At others, faith community staffers will reach out directly to their congregations and spread the word organically.
It’s unclear whether Parmar’s regular clinic, or the temporary pop-up sites, can bar residents who don’t live in a certain zip code.
Gary Sky, a spokesperson for the Tri-County Health Department, said it’s possible for “small community providers serving underserved communities” to do so. But a spokesperson for the State Emergency Operations Center said state health authorities “expect providers to administer the vaccine to any eligible Coloradan who has an appointment.” The spokesperson said that “residency should not be a barrier to getting the vaccine.”
But across the spectrum of clinics, pop-up sites, academic experts and healthcare authorities, there’s broad agreement that the vaccine roll out is working against disinformation and skeptic attitudes about the shots that are probably holding some residents back.
Hughey, at the VEC, said staff plan to ramp up their vaccine safety “education” efforts before their next pop-up. That’s scheduled for March 16.
She’s heard that some people are concerned that the vaccine implants “nanobots” in their bodies; others have said the inoculations contain the “mark of the beast.” So she’s planning to educate local youth about vaccine safety, with the hope that they’ll naturally spread the word to older family members eligible to get the shot.
Hughey is eagerly watching how other pop-up sites and clinics perform. More pop-ups are planned in the coming weeks, including one scheduled for Feb. 18 at the Dayton St. Opportunity Center, 1445 Dayton St.