Purgatory Resort in Durango, Colorado, is a main tourist attractions, bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors every season. Making sure that the hospitality workers are vaccinated was one of the priorities for the health authorities in the region. (Source: Flickr)

As the demand for vaccines waned in Durango, Colorado, local businesses stepped up to make getting the shot a little more appealing.

Initial demand for the vaccine in the town of 18,588 was high, according to San Juan Basin Public Health. By mid-summer, however, demand was beginning to taper off.

That’s when Tim Walsworth, executive director for the Durango Business Improvement District (BID), decided to step in. Walsworth asked BID members to step up, too.

Tim Walsworth, executive director for the Durango Business Improvement District (Source: downtowndurango.org)

“We thought the vaccine was kind of the end game to this pandemic,” Walsworth said. More needed to be done to raise the vaccination rate.

“We reached out to those businesses we represent and pretty quickly we got a handful of them to agree to provide a discount or a deal to those that got the shot,” he said. “We collected those and simply printed them on an 8 ½ by 11 inch piece of paper and provided those to our local health department.”

Of the nearly 750 pages of coupons the business district provided, nearly all of them are now gone, Walsworth said.

“The health department was able to use those as a small incentive to get people to start their vaccination series,” he said. “There was a lot of buy-one-get one type offers. We added them all up, and if someone were to go out and redeem each one of them, it would have been just under $100 worth of savings. It wasn’t a lot, but it was a little bit that we could do to help and support the vaccination effort.”

Called the “Our Shot Rewards” program, the pages of coupons did have an impact.

“We thought that was a successful program,” said Chandler Griffin, Covid-19 public information officer for San Juan Basin Public Health.  “We’re continuing to offer incentives to our residents right now to get them to get the vaccination.”

Some evidence shows even little incentives encourage people to get the vaccine, Griffin said.

Early on, demand for the vaccine was high and the public health department worked to bring together different entities to roll out the vaccine in phases. By building a broad base of partners, like healthcare providers and pharmacists, the health department was able to augment their own clinics providing up to 1,000 shots per day.

But by June, demand for the vaccine started to fall off. It was then, Griffin said, that the health department shifted focus to education and outreach – working again with partners to dispel misinformation and vaccination fears.

A volunteer base that had once helped with mass shot clinics turned then to meeting people at public events to interact with residents about how important getting the vaccine was.

Just as important was vaccinating hospitality workers in advance of the tourist season. Walsworth said the southwest corner of Colorado usually gets around a million tourists a year. Surrounded by Mesa Verde National Park, Purgatory Ski Resort, and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Durango grows exponentially between June and September, he said.

“Our little town has about 18,000 people living in it,” he said. “Add a million people to that and it changes things… We’re a little town, which is awesome, but we don’t have a lot of room to grow, so stuff gets crowded.”

Walsworth with the Business Improvement District said smaller towns will see more tourism this summer.

“I think Covid has changed a lot of the ways people observe their world, and their neighbors, and people they don’t know,” he said. “There’s a lot more folks coming to remote areas like this because they just want to get out of the rat race.”

Knowing that people would be coming made it important to encourage vaccinations, he said – to protect tourists and employees.

The business community stepped up, Walsworth said, offering gift cards to their employees who got vaccinated and working to encourage their employees to get the vaccine. The BID held a vaccination clinic at a local theater in the downtown area, he said.

“Being a tourist town, we focused primarily on our restaurant workers,” he said. “We held the clinic at a local theater so it was super easy for folks to go to the clinic before, during or after their shifts.”

Walsworth said nearly 80 people took advantage of the clinic in the theater.

“It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the area,” he said. “But it’s something.”

So far, Griffin said, vaccination efforts in the San Juan Basin are going well. As of the first week in August, more than 72% of the more than 51,000 residents in La Plata County had received at least one dose of the vaccine. To the east, Archuleta County, which also has an economy based on visitors and recreation, 59.5% of the 12,000 residents had at least one dose. La Plata’s completed vaccination rate of 59.8% of total population is 4.6 percentage points higher than the state average.

“We would like it to be higher, especially as we approach the fall and winter,” Griffin said. “We think we’ve been able to achieve those high rates due to our robust access to clinics and events.”

To reach those who may have transportation issues, or who may lack the technology to sign-up for the vaccine, the public health department is using mobile pop-up clinics. And the department has started a program that works with home-bound residents to get them vaccinated as well.

The community, like the nation, is not finished battling the pandemic, he said

“We’re in the marathon phase of racing against the disease,” he said. “From a public health perspective, our advice is that those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated should be wearing masks and social distancing. But the vaccine is still our best tool to prevent hospitalizations and deaths.”