Harold “Tommy” Thompson survived his first pandemic back in 1918 when the Spanish flu ravaged the world, infecting an estimated 500 million or one-third of the world’s population at the time.
On Sunday, a couple of weeks after turning 103, Thompson received a vaccine to keep him safe from COVID-19.
“This is his second pandemic,” said Eileen Meis, one of Thompson’s five children.
Thompson was among 10,000 people who received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Coors Field parking lot over the weekend during Colorado’s largest mass drive-through vaccination event.
“I feel good, and I appreciate all of you working like this,” Thompson said after receiving his vaccine.
“It’s wonderful,” added his son-in-law, Kevin Meis. “We have hope and can start to get our lives moving again. We know that he wouldn’t survive COVID if he got it.”
How to get your COVID-19 Vaccine
UCHealth and University of Colorado School of Medicine experts organized and staffed the vaccine clinic in partnership with the Colorado Rockies, the State of Colorado, the City of Denver, the Denver Police and Verizon.
The clinic was open to people ages 70 and older, all of whom had received invitations by phone or email to make appointments and get their first dose of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. All will return to Coors Field in three weeks to get their second booster dose.
Thompson was among a handful of centenarians who came. Some vaccine recipients had served in World War II. Some traveled more than 100 miles to get the much-sought-after vaccines. The fittest rode their bikes. Many brought dogs and family members who cheered as doctors, nurses and other providers gave patients a quick shot and sped them on their way. Everyone was thrilled to get potentially life-saving vaccines during the worst global pandemic since 1918.
Thompson’s mom saved him from 1918 flu by stopping outsiders at the gate
Back then, Thompson was an infant and his mother kept the family safe by barring any outsiders from coming past the front gate of the family’s farmhouse in Egypt, Mississippi, population 75. Thompson grew up in Egypt and went on to play football at Mississippi State University, where his coach dubbed him “Tommy,” a nickname that has stuck all of these years. He’s the oldest known surviving MSU Bulldog and received a commemorative football when he turned 100. Thompson and his beloved wife, Rosemary, farmed, grew cotton and raised dairy cows. During World War II, Thompson supported the war effort on the home front by managing a facility that repaired airplanes. Thompson has five children, 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Rosemary died in 2011 and in 2016, Thompson moved to Colorado to live with Eileen and Kevin at their home in Westminster.
While Thompson remembers stories from his childhood well and penned two memoirs that he still enjoys reading, he has dementia now. He misses shaking people’s hands and socializing. Each day throughout this pandemic, his family has had to explain anew that a deadly pathogen has wreaked havoc on the world.
“He forgets about the virus every day. He wonders why we don’t take him anywhere,” said Eileen.
But on Sunday, Thompson was in great spirits. He arrived with his companion, a little rescue dog, Keks, which means biscuit in German. Thompson slipped off a Mississippi State jacket as Claire Schend, a nurse who normally works at a cancer infusion center in Fort Collins, gently inserted a needle into Thompson’s right arm.
“Yeeha!” Eileen exclaimed. “We have been waiting for this for over a year. He thought we were torturing him.”
Mass vaccination event at baseball stadium ‘hits it out of the park’
On both Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of people lined up early before the official opening at 8 a.m. As the sun rose, golden light shimmered over six lanes of cars that stretched about half a mile from a large check-in tent that resembled a toll plaza. The skyscrapers of downtown Denver rose nearby, while the snow-capped mountains jutted up to the west.
The cars snaked through a long parking lot that normally accommodates Colorado Rockies baseball fans. Health workers and volunteer medical students checked patients in, then funneled them to 20 vaccination stations.
More than 35 UCHealth staffers have been working nearly around the clock to prepare for the event since Jan. 7, the day when Colorado leaders asked UCHealth leaders if they could organize and run a mass vaccination event. The team did a practice run and fine-tuned their technique on Jan. 24, when they vaccinated 1,000 older adults.
At other sports venues around the U.S., mass vaccine clinics have run into major snafus from hours-long waits and delays to closures forced by protesters.
Here in Colorado, organizers were thrilled with the outcome. Most people were able to get in and out in about 30 minutes. The fastest zipped through in 22 minutes, including check-in, vaccination and a 15-minute observation period in a nearby parking lot to ensure no one had adverse reactions.
“We hit it out of the park. This event marks the light at the end of the tunnel. This is the model for drive-through mass vaccination. We now know that our single limitation is the supply of vaccine,” said Dr. Richard Zane, executive director of emergency services at UCHeath University of Colorado Hospital, and UCHealth’s Chief Innovation Officer.
UCHealth leaders are eager to offer more vaccination clinics throughout Colorado, said Zane, who is also a professor and chair of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
The team that organized and hosted the mass clinic is creating a playbook to share with other health care systems in Colorado and around the U.S. so they can duplicate the event if they wish.
Among the key planners were Sarah White and Kathy Deanda. Together with a core team, they gamed out every detail and predicted down to the second how long each step would take. They had triple-redundant back-up plans for critical functions in case complications arose.
And since University of Colorado Hospital is an academic medical center where research is vital, they did some studies too. They timed how long cars took to wind through the clinic. They tested a “pit-crew” system, where a team of health care workers cocooned patients’ cars, checking them in and delivering vaccines all in one location. They learned they could do all that in 56 seconds and compared that system to an alternative method where drivers checked in at one spot, then drove forward to one of an array of inoculation tents. Both systems worked well, and organizers fine-tuned in real time as they discovered which system worked best.
“It’s gone very well. This is a huge day for our patients,” said White, who is UCHealth’s senior director of innovation and system project management. “We’ve made a lot of real-time adjustments.”
Patients loved smooth and efficient mass vaccination event
Patients loved the seamless system.
Among the happy vaccine recipients were Doris and Nathaniel Anderson of Aurora. She’s 73 and he’s 74. Both recently received their vaccine appointment invitations through UCHealth’s online portal, My Health Connection.
Doris was hesitant at first about getting her vaccine since she has allergies. She worried about having an allergic reaction. But, she also has diabetes and breathing issues, so she knows she’s at high risk for getting critically ill if she gets COVID-19. So, she prayed about her decision and opted to go ahead with the vaccine. She’s been feeling great ever since.
Doris wore a cap that said “VIP,” and felt like a very important person on Saturday.
“It was excellent. We both talked about how efficient it was and how impressed we were with the organization,” she said. “We were in and out of there in about 35 minutes.”
Neither she nor her husband had any side-effects, not even a sore arm. And they’re relieved that they’ll soon have some protection from the highly contagious coronavirus. Nathaniel has had some heart problems in the past. Doris saved his life in 2019 when his heart stopped and he collapsed in their kitchen. She did CPR, started his heart and called for help. Emergency workers kept his heart going as it stopped a couple more times on the way to University of Colorado Hospital. He now has a pacemaker and a defibrillator and is doing well.
The Andersons care for three men who have developmental disabilities in their home. For nearly a year since the virus surfaced early in 2020, all five of them have been hunkering down to avoid getting sick.
“My husband and I have been terribly blessed and highly favored during the pandemic,” Doris said.
The couple works hard to care for the men and to shop and cook all of their meals. Everyone has stayed healthy, and the couple looks forward to spending more time in the future with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Gov. Jared Polis on mass vaccination model: ‘We can do 10,000 again and again and again’
To make the event come together, Zane challenged the team to go big. He’s an expert at handling casualty care and mass gatherings medicine. He saluted the team for making the impossible possible.
He called their system “blue-ocean planning.”
“We start with a goal. Then, you have the entire ocean to plan it: a blank canvas.”
When the leaders first surveyed the empty parking lot at Coors Field, “most people thought we were insane,” Zane said.
A mere 2 ½ weeks later, the site seemed tailor-made for a mass vaccine event.
Among those who visited were Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. He saluted the leaders for vaccinating so many people so quickly and for creating a template for future mass vaccination events.
“We can do 10,000 this weekend, then do it again and again,” Polis said as he stood atop an adjacent parking garage and surveyed the massive operation four stories below him.
Polis encouraged all Coloradans to sign up for vaccines. He expects most adults, ages 70 and older, to be vaccinated by the end of February. And on Feb. 8, teachers and people ages 65 and older can start receiving their vaccines.
About 170 UCHealth staffers ran the event each day.
“It’s been a massive team approach,” White said.
In addition to smart people, the team made the most of technology, said Kathy Deanda, who is a nurse, a computer programmer and UCHealth’s director of virtual health.
“We’re out here in the middle of a parking lot. But each tent has handheld devices that look like smart phones. They’re called rovers. And in real time, the (health care providers) are logging into EPIC, (the medical record),” Deanda said.
At the push of a button, providers could track their patients so they could quickly get to the important task at hand, pushing vaccines into arms.
“The secret sauce is IT,” said Zane.
“Yes,” said Deanda. “And 4,000 of these 5,000 patients ‘e-checked’ in before they arrived. They brought their bar codes with them so we could check them in and vaccinate them in under a minute.”
Pharmacy workers sometimes coaxed a 7th dose out of each precious vaccine bottle
Along with the clinic leaders, another set of health care heroes was working behind the scenes: a group of about 25 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians who were quietly preparing thousands of doses of vaccines. They huddled in a tent at the edge of the parking lot, and over and over again, shook bottles of the precious liquid, then loaded it into syringes. Their guiding mission: not to waste a single molecule of vaccine. Every once in a while, a cheer erupted from the tent.
“We got a seventh!” said Christy Harmon, the pharmacy supervisor for the clinic.
She was referring to a very special seventh dose of vaccine that workers occasionally can eke out of a bottle.
Each container of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine contains five precious doses. But, with the right syringes, experienced technicians regularly can squeeze a sixth dose from each bottle. Then, once in a blue moon, or maybe once an hour or so, talented, patient workers can coax out a seventh bonus dose. That leads to raucous cheering.
“It’s going really well. They’re the heroes. They’re working above and beyond their regular hours and they’re working tirelessly,” Harmon said of her team of 25 people.
Nurses, students, volunteers, doctors celebrate: Mass vaccination event one of the best days ever
The workers spread out at vaccination tents throughout the site were thrilled too. Some wore ski pants and Sorrell boots as they braved the morning chill.
Laura Madsen is a nurse who has been working in the ICUs at University of Colorado Hospital since the pandemic began. That’s where the most critically ill COVID-19 patients have received care. She has had to hold up iPads so family members could say goodbye to their loved ones.
“They just kept coming one after another after another,” Madsen said, referring to patients who had to be admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 during the worst waves of the pandemic.
On Sunday, patients kept coming, but on a much happier occasion.
They kept driving up, pulled up their sleeves and grinned beneath colorful masks.
Both Madsen and her patients were overjoyed.
“This is one of the top three days of my 16-year nursing career,” Madsen said. “All of the people here are in such great spirits.”
Allison Avery was practically dancing as she kicked up her legs in the lot. She’s a student at the Anschutz Medical Campus where she’s studying to become a physician assistant.
“I’m super excited to be a part of something so positive. I’m obsessed,” she said.
Avery volunteered to staff the vaccine clinic this weekend and has signed up to volunteer at every other clinic she can attend.
He wore his white coat and happily gave vaccine after vaccine to elated patients.
“This is some of the most gratifying work that I’ve done during the pandemic,” said Lin. “If we stand here long enough, we’re going to crush this pandemic!”
An 86-year-old great-grandmother prayed and decided to get the vaccine. Now she’s praying for the pandemic to end
Among the grateful patients receiving care on Sunday was Soledad Balderrama, 86.
Her granddaughter, Laura Cano, brought her to the clinic.
Laura’s mom and one of Soledad’s daughters died when she was a little girl. Soledad raised Laura and now, the tables have turned. Laura and her two sons now take care of Soledad at their home in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood.
Soledad was born in Mexico and speaks Spanish. On hand to help her with her vaccine was UCHealth interpreter Liz Lubelski.
With her black hair in braids and a warm hat atop her head, Soledad described how she has stayed so healthy. She walks and climbs the stairs. She loves to cook and eats a lot of vegetables, especially nopalitos or cactus.
Soledad was nervous about getting the vaccine, but decided to go ahead after saying some prayers.
She was happy afterwards.
“Hopefully, I won’t get sick now,” she said.
Before leaving, Soledad showed off her necklace that has beads that allow her to say the rosary again and again.
“I just pray to God for everybody. I’ve always asked God to end the pandemic,” Soledad said.
Rockies’ owner: ‘We’ve got to distribute vaccines in a fast and efficient way’
Few of the patients weaving through the parking lot realized that a man wearing a purple Colorado Rockies hat was the team owner. Monfort spent hours this weekend and last standing on the pavement and waving an orange flag to guide patients through the parking lot.
He asked 40 staff members to volunteer at the clinic. So, Monfort and his wife, Karen, stepped up too.
“I’ve been a real advocate of getting people vaccinated,” Monfort said. “We’ve got to push the government to get us our share. Then, we’ve got to distribute the vaccines in a fast and efficient way.”
Monfort was thrilled that the mass event worked so well.
“Here’s the deal. It’s all about the customer,” he said.
Monfort was thrilled to be part of such a “smooth” operation.
“Everybody is thanking us. UCHealth has done things the right way. It’s fun to be part of it.”