Roving central Colorado with three vans, pop-up tents, and folding chairs, public health workers in Jefferson County set out this spring to get coronavirus vaccines to the people who were hardest to reach. They brushed off heckling from passersby who sometimes yelled that COVID-19 was a hoax or that the shots were “poison.”
But the harassment grew more frequent, said Jefferson County Public Health Executive Director Dawn Comstock. And more threatening.
One man slashed the mobile clinic signs with a knife, Comstock said, while another person threw lit fireworks into one of the tents. People drove menacingly toward staffers and ran over signs. They hurled insults, trash and liquid, she said, each time fleeing before law enforcement could hold anyone accountable.
Last weekend, Comstock said, it was so bad that she pulled the mobile clinics off the street and said they would go out only with security. She said she is done being "polite" about the vitriol over vaccines that have been proved safe and effective, and she called the harassers "cowards."
"Those that are spreading lies are promoting distrust, anger and division within our community," Comstock said in an interview Sunday. "And we simply cannot continue to allow opinions and emotions to outweigh the truth and the science."
She marvels that "our staff are being mistreated by members of our own community." She worries about public health workers in other states where vaccination rates are lower and resistance to the shots is stronger. She is tired.
"At this point, the overwhelming majority of people in our country are doing the right thing," said Comstock, a longtime epidemiology professor who took charge of the department early this year. "Why on earth are we letting this minority group that is listening to lies and making their decisions based on lies - why on earth are we still letting them hold us back?"
Health workers are reporting harassment and obstruction as they try to get reluctant people vaccinated, echoing alarms raised earlier in the pandemic over sometimes personal threats to public health and election staffers.
This year in California, one of the largest mass-vaccination sites in the United States briefly ground to a halt when maskless protesters blocked an entrance. The state legislature recently passed a bill making it a crime to intimidate or interfere with someone at place where vaccines are administered. In Georgia, officials said last month that bullying protesters led them to close a mobile vaccine site.
"This is wrong. This is absolutely wrong," Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said at a news conference. "These people are giving their lives to help others and to help us in the state. We in Georgia can do better."
Comstock felt the same dismay in Jefferson County, home to more than half a million people, where vaccination rates are relatively high but some remain intensely opposed to authorities' immunization campaigns.
The hostility has not been limited to mobile vaccination clinics. A drive-through clinic that could administer thousands of shots each day, back when demand was higher, drew protesters. But they were easily dispersed, Comstock said, and there was little disruption. Staffers were relatively safe there, she said, carrying out their work from a garage while people stayed in their cars.
The mobile clinics are more vulnerable.
Comstock rattled off a long list of people targeted for harassment: The mother who came to get her child vaccinated, only to be screamed at and threatened with calls to protective services. The staffers who found themselves surrounded by people who goaded them and tried to snatch their syringes. The people who had to wait when someone blocked the way with a truck and got out to heckle. The public health nurse who approached a driver, who rolled a car window down and threw a glass of what thankfully seemed to be just water.
No one has been hurt, Comstock said. But she is worried enough to deploy the county's vans only to places and events where they can get on-site protection from private security or local law enforcement. While police have been supportive, she said, she is not aware of any arrests over the clinic incidents.
A spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, Jenny Fulton, wrote in an email Sunday that the agency has not made any arrests, but she noted that not all of the incidents happened in the agency's jurisdiction. The sheriff's office in nearby Gilpin County - where Comstock said a driver last weekend ran over signs - did not respond to questions Sunday.
The county public health director said she contacted the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and was told that similar threatening behavior was reported elsewhere in the state. Officials are working with state law enforcement, she said, trying to figure out "how to protect public health officials here in Colorado."
The state agency did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.
Comstock welcomed President Joe Biden's sweeping new vaccine mandates: We've tried everything, she said. "What else is left?"
The added security this past week in Jefferson County seemed to help, she said, and the work went on.