Late Wednesday morning, a line formed through the atrium and outside a building on Clayton Early Learning’s campus, on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard in Denver. A truck emblazoned with the Denver Health logo idled in the parking lot. 

In a room set up as a vaccination area, a health worker swabbed Shanae Francis’ arm. Facing straight ahead, Francis squeezed her eyes shut and scrunched up her face in anticipation of the shot. After the quick poke, she opened her eyes.  

“Is that it?” she said, a note of incredulity in her voice. “That wasn’t bad.”  

Francis hates needles. But she resolved to get the COVID-19 vaccine because she suffered from a respiratory infection a few years ago and found herself fighting for her life on a ventilator. It was frightening, she said, and she doesn’t want to go through that again.  

She has 2-year-old identical twins in Clayton’s Early Head Start program. Francis is a frontline essential worker, though she declined to give more details about her employer, and was among about 200 people receiving doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday from Denver Health’s mobile clinic stop at Clayton’s campus. 

Francis, who identifies as African American, is the first person in her family to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and she hopes her other family members seeing her receive it will help them feel more comfortable with getting it. She said some family members rely on natural healing methods, and some of them have mentioned conspiracy theories they have heard about COVID-19 vaccinations, she said. 

Francis said she spoke with a doctor about her health history before getting her COVID-19 shot, and she has not gotten sick from other vaccines in the past. 

“I asked questions because I was nervous, and my family is really nervous,” Francis said. “I'm trying to be the face of it for them [so] they feel more comfortable.” 

She said while getting her shot, the calm demeanor and reassurance of the clinic workers helped her feel comfortable. 

“It grounds me a little bit,” she said. 

The mobile clinic held the event Wednesday to vaccinate family members of children Clayton serves who are eligible for vaccines under Phase 1B.3 of Colorado’s distribution plan, which began March 5 and includes frontline essential workers in grocery and agriculture sectors, people age 60 and older, and people between 16 and 59 who have two or more high-risk health conditions. 

Clayton Early Learning is one of several community organizations Denver Health has partnered with for its mobile vaccine clinics, including churches, senior living facilities and preschools to hold vaccine clinics.  

Because of still-limited vaccine supplies, rather than publish a schedule of upcoming clinics, Denver Health has relied on working with its community partners to identify people in their neighborhoods eligible for vaccination. And as trusted parts of their communities, the organizations have also been doing outreach to educate people about the COVID-19 vaccines and help them navigate administrative processes of registering. 

Denver Health also partnered with the Center for African American Health for Wednesday’s vaccine clinic, though a staff member with the organization on site wasn’t available for an interview. 

Denver Health now has three vehicles operating as mobile clinics. Ashley Shurley, a registered nurse who has been helping operate them, previously told the Denver Gazette that the health system has been developing its vaccine priorities for the mobile clinics by targeting communities hit hard by COVID-19 -- because of positivity rates, less access to testing and less ability to take time off from work to get care, for example -- using data based on ZIP codes predictive of poverty and health outcomes. 

She said the vans provide COVID-19 health care by “not only providing the access by bringing the care to that neighborhood, but also reducing barriers that might exist for people living in those communities, whether it's the fear of the healthcare system, or language barriers, transportation barriers, [or] limitations to phone or internet access that are needed at our traditional health care sites.” 

Clayton Early Learning, located at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard in Denver, provides school, home-based and community education programs for low-income children up to age 5 and their families, including Head Start preschool and Early Head Start. The organization serves several hundred children who live at or below the poverty line, many of whom are children of color.  

According to data provided by a spokesperson, the children Clayton serves are 52% Hispanic and 33% African American. 

Mackenzie Holdershaw, Denver Health’s nursing program manager for the mobile health centers, estimated about 80% of the staff members she oversees are bilingual. 

“That has been so key to helping those that we're seeing feel comfortable to be able to communicate well,” she said. “It adds a piece of diversity to our staff into something that we're doing to go and help diverse populations, so that trust is being built.” 

Clayton held a clinic in mid-February to give a first round of vaccines to the organization’s educators and other staff who frequently work in person including IT, research and facilities maintenance. 

According to Clayton’s CEO and president Becky Crowe, that first clinic vaccinated 170 employees and 30 other people older than 65, many of whom were parents of educators. 

After her shot, Francis crosses back through the check-in area in the Clayton building’s atrium into a room opposite the vaccination area, which is being used as an observation space where people wait for 15 minutes after their shot in case they have any negative reaction to it. A clinic worker comes over to Francis and hands her a card, telling Francis her second vaccine shot is scheduled for early April. 

Holdershaw said scheduling appointments for people’s second vaccine shots on the spot when they receive their first dose was one of the earliest tweaks the health system made to its vaccine programs as it rolled them out.  

“We're always looking for little tiny tweaks to make it better,” she said. “The team that I have, we love doing this, and we really are having such a great time getting out there, getting everyone vaccinated and helping the world get back to normal.” 

Note: Denver Health has received funding for the mobile clinics discussed in this story through a grant from The Anschutz Foundation. The Denver Gazette is owned by The Anschutz Corporation through Clarity Media Group.