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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

San Juan County Leads The State In Vaccination Rate, Thanks In Part To Large Drive-Thru Events

Around 200 people were vaccinated at a drive-through event on Feb. 11 in Monument Valley. The Utah Navajo Health System has been holding drive through vaccination events since early January in San Juan County, Utah.
Kate Groetzinger
Around 200 people were vaccinated at a drive-thru event on Feb. 11 in Monument Valley. The Utah Navajo Health System has been holding drive-thru vaccination events since early January in San Juan County, Utah.

COVID-19 vaccination is moving quickly on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, Utah. People there over the age of 45 are now eligible to get the shot. But it’s hard to say exactly what percent of the county’s Navajo population has been vaccinated.

The Utah Navajo Health System is one of the main health care providers in San Juan County, which currently has the highest vaccination rate of any county in the state. The health system has given out 2,400 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at large drive-thru events in the past month, according to Byron Clarke, operations manager for the health system. That’s about a quarter of the native population in the county.

But the vaccination rate on the Navajo Nation in Utah may be even higher, Clarke said, because people are getting it from a number of different providers.

“Down here along the border of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, wherever they can get it is where they’re going,” he said.

In order to keep track of what percentage of their patients have been vaccinated, Clarke said health system employees call a list of patients in a specific age range and ask if they’ve gotten the vaccine if they want it. He estimates that of those patients who are 65 and over, 90% or more have gotten it.

Clarke attributes their success in getting the vaccine out quickly to the drive-thru events, which allow them to vaccinate upwards of 500 people in a day. The health system purchased an ultra-deep freezer last year so it can receive the Pfizer vaccine. But those vaccines come in shipments of around 1,000 — which all have to be distributed within a week.

“It would be a nightmare to do that by appointment,” he said. “You do have more control and can verify age and other criteria [with appointments]. But at the same time, I think it would take ten times longer.”

Clarke said the health system dropped the minimum eligibility age to get vaccinated down to 45 at a drive-thru in Monument Valley last week based on turnout at past drive-thru events and estimates by clinic staff. And they ended up opening it up to everyone because the line died down early.

Lola Black is a 33-year-old mother who went to the Monument Valley event. She said she was surprised and relieved she was able to get the shot.

“I thought there was a food bank so I came over, and they told me about the vaccine,” she said. “My mom had already got it, so I wanted to get it.”

Melissa Zito, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health, said the Navajo Nation sets its own eligibility criteria for the vaccine, and the state of Utah provides the shots.

As of Feb. 12, the state had sent 5,600 doses to San Juan County, according to data from the state health department, and around 20% of the county’s population had received at least one shot. Across the entire Navajo Nation, around a quarter of the population had received at least one shot on Feb. 11.

A drop in active COVID-19 cases could be proof the vaccine is working, Clarke said, adding the active case rate in southern San Juan County has fallen over 80% in the past few weeks. According to the health service’s records, there were 80 active cases in Blanding, Montezuma Creek and Monument Valley on Jan. 20. On Feb. 12, that number was down to nine.

That’s the lowest active case rate the health system has seen since Sept., Clarke said, adding that it’s a huge relief for the hard-hit area. According to data from the state health department, the mortality rate in San Juan County is four times that of the state of Utah.

The next Utah Navajo Health System drive-thru event is planned for Feb. 16 in Blanding.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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