Garfield County frontline medical workers administered first round of COVID-19 vaccinations

Grand River Health’s Dr. Bonnie Walsh being administered the COVID-19 vaccine in Rifle Thursday. Ray Erku / Post Independent

Among colleagues and fellow practitioners on perhaps one of the most historical days in Garfield County, Grand River Health’s Dr. Alan-Michael Vargas was administered a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer.

“It feels like a flu shot,” he said. “It’s really no different.”

Vargas said he was chosen to first receive the vaccine because he’s essentially spent the entire year helping patients fight the virus while on the front lines of Grand River’s respiratory clinic.

“It came down to us and our fellow man, our community, our loved ones and our families,” he said. “This is me giving back, this is us going ahead and turning around and saying, ‘This is huge, this is going to be a turning point.'”

On Wednesday, frontline medical workers at Valley View Health in Glenwood Springs were also administered the vaccine — the first, in fact, for all of Garfield County, according to a news release from Valley View.

“This is a historic moment,” Valley View Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Brooks stated in a Wednesday news release. “Today, we begin to turn the tide of the pandemic in our community. By starting with our community’s front-line healthcare workers, we protect those who are at high risk and the patients for whom they care.”

“I’m grateful to the entire team at Valley View who have worked for months to prepare for this moment,” he added.

The next day, after receiving hundreds of vaccinations, a spate of Grand River frontline medical workers were also administered the initial vaccination.

Grand River Health’s Dr. Alan-Michael Vargas being administered the COVID-19 vaccine Thursday in Rifle. Ray Erku / Post Independent

Just after being injected with the drug, family medicine specialist Dr. Bonnie S. Walsh said she could barely feel any pain and that “it’s awesome.”

“(I’ve) been super excited to get this pandemic over,” she said. “It’s been very trying, with a lot of new things, a lot of new protocols, a lot of sick people… I’m very hopeful that this really is going to help our community.”

Once the vaccine is administered to frontline medical workers in Garfield County, it will then make its way to the local geriatric population, first responders and those with preexisting conditions and, finally, the general public. That last wave of vaccines will likely happen in late spring or early summer, according to health care professionals.

Walsh was asked what she looks forward to when the pandemic ends.

“The beach, vacation, family, hugs,” she said. ‘All of these things.”

According to Dr. Dustin Cole, a Grand River lab, pharmaceutical and radiological administrator who’s helped coordinate the response to COVID-19, the vaccine might be new but is based on tried and tested technology over three decades old.

Cole said physicians began studying the mRNA technology back in the late 1980s in an effort to combat influenza, zika virus and Cytomegalovirus.

“I think our biggest challenge is, there’s so much misinformation and disinformation on vaccines out there,” he said. “As providers, as a doctor and as a system, if we do it right, we give our patients all the facts and empower them to make the right decisions for themselves.”

In other words, the advent of the virus has acted as a catalyst for progress.

“It’s the perfect marriage of the evolution of that technology, the pandemic, the need for a quick vaccine and then the funding and the resources to make that happen,” Cole said. “So, it’s that marriage that probably moved us 10 years down the road in less than a year.”

How the vaccine actually works is simple, Cole said. What researchers have been able to do is take a small sliver of barcode from one of those weird little spikes you see sticking outside of the virus sphere, aka those little red balls you’ve seen in CDC graphics and elsewhere this year. That barcode is the mRNA.

The mRNA is then wrapped in fats, salts and sugars and injected back into the body to trigger an effective immune response. “So what we’re doing is hijacking the machinery of our body,” Cole said. “Instead of injecting a protein, we’re making a protein from inside the body — a very tiny protein that then goes outside the cell. The minute it goes outside the cell, the body says, ‘Whoah, that’s foreign, we’re going to attack it.'”

After the first vaccination, however, the efficacy rate of the vaccine doesn’t reach the desired level. Instead, it’s after the second go around that efficacy reaches 95%. But even a higher vaccination rate — measles is at 97% — doesn’t mean the disease will fully disappear.


Grand River Health’s Dr. Alan-Michael Vargas after being administered the COVID-19 vaccine Thursday in Rifle. Ray Erku / Post Independent

“The reason why we did not eradicate measles is because, honestly, there’s people that don’t do vaccines,” Vargas said.

Speaking to minority groups — demographics in which have been disproportionately more affected by the virus and are more skeptical in taking the vaccine due to a number of reasons — Vargas said that the drug has already been successfully tested using different ethnicities, ages, genders, nationalities and backgrounds.

In spite of this, Vargas said confidence in the vaccine among minority men and women is roughly 50% and lower. He said everyone, even those who are skeptical, should take the studies well into consideration.

“It actually makes it a little more real,” Vargas said of the research.

Still, as more and more people are vaccinated, Vargas stressed that social distancing and mask wearing will continue to be important tools in combating the virus.

Asked what he plans to do once the full positive effects of the COVID-19 vaccination unfold throughout the course of 2021, Vargas said he plans to finally visit his in-laws.

He also looked back on his toughest point in 2020.

“Honestly, my kids are really fighting me to go outside, to go to parks, to go to places,” he said, tears building in his eyes. “And to have to tell them why we can’t go, that bothers me. They’re really thinking about the world as ‘this is what it is.'”

“To think of a future that all of sudden I have to teach them that this isn’t the norm, that’s the hardest part.”

Nevertheless, he expects a celebration.

“That’s going to be the big thing, summer 2021,” he said. “When people feel like they can come out and see their families, that’s what matters.”

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