The airport says a lot about Cortez: The single-engine planes that fly into its one-room airport seat nine passengers at most. The city of about 9,000 is known largely as a gateway to beautiful places like Mesa Verde National Park and the Four Corners Monument. But COVID-19 vaccines have made Cortez a destination in its own right.
“We had a couple fly in to get their vaccine from Denver that couldn’t get it in the Denver metro area,” said Marc Meyer, director of pharmacy services and infection control for Southwest Health System, which includes clinics and a community hospital in Cortez. Others have come from neighboring states and as far away as California, Florida and the Carolinas.
“They all come back for their second dose,” he said. “Because it’s so hard to get in the cities.”
With vaccines now becoming available to the general public in much of the country, the privilege of easy access is coming into sharper focus. On the most extreme end, vaccine tourists with means can nab inoculations, as Forbes has reported, in places such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates and even Cuba, where ads offered “mojitos and vaccine.” On the flip side, some people have found it hard to get to a vaccine appointment a few miles away.
In fact, around the same time people were flying into Cortez to get their shots, Meyer said, some locals couldn’t get to vaccine locations. That was particularly true for people who are homebound or homeless.
So Meyer and his colleagues came up with a vaccine SWAT team of sorts, composed of paramedics and a handful of ambulances stocked with vaccine vials. The team visited about 40 homebound people. For 30 or so people who are homeless in the area, Meyer snagged leftover doses of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine from a nearby county.
But he said he doesn’t know if his team got to everyone who wanted vaccines. “The problem with health disparities in rural areas is there’s no data,” he said. “It would be really helpful to know how many people have transportation issues.”
A KHN analysis of Colorado health department data shows that by the end of March about 43% of Coloradans who had received their first doses, and had addresses on file, got those shots outside of their home county. At least 60,000 Coloradans — about as many people as live in Grand Junction, the biggest city in western Colorado — got their first vaccine dose 50 or more miles away, as the crow flies, from their home ZIP codes.
And the state vaccinated more than 20,000 people from out of state — tourists, traveling nurses, cross-border dwellers and others whose primary residence is elsewhere — about 1% of the total number of people who had received first doses by April 1 in Colorado.