As the COVID-19 delta variant spreads across Colorado and ravages other parts of the country, gathering to “celebrate” with my former co-workers at COVDCheck Colorado last Saturday could have seemed premature and anticlimactic all at once.

To the contrary, it was both necessary and cathartic.

I joined COVIDCheck Colorado in January, just as it embarked on a massive push to help distribute vaccinations across the state. My legal background with health care companies and in government affairs made me a strong professional fit as General Counsel. My personal history — including the death of my brother-in-law one year ago this past week — made me a cultural fit.

Mario Nicolais

COVIDCheck Colorado began in the summer of 2020 as small organization hoping to help a few businesses access testing as they struggled through the pandemic. A project of the philanthropic Gary Community Ventures organization, COVIDCheck Colorado grew exponentially. By that fall, they were providing tens of thousands of tests every week in schools and drive-thru locations across the state.

Akin to opening a fire hydrant too quickly, the voluminous stream would have overwhelmed many organizations. To their enduring credit, the leadership at COVIDCheck Colorado worked through every challenge. They met each with hard work, dedication and fierce determination. Or more properly, in accordance with their stated values, humility, action and excellence.

Where most organizations would have been satisfied with such an achievement, last winter COVIDCheck Colorado rededicated itself to a new goal: providing access to life-saving vaccines for every Coloradan who wanted one. That choice gave me a front-row seat to something extraordinary.

For the rest of my life, I will remain in awe of the logistical challenges and achievements of every organization and individual who dedicated themselves to this cause. From the scientists who collaborated to develop vaccines to the regulators who worked under extraordinary duress to ensure their safety to the front-line workers who delivered the actual shots.

The comparable I keep returning to is the response and mobilization of our country following Pearl Harbor. Beyond the immediate military reaction, the entire economy rapidly turned toward achieving a shared goal. Governments, private sector groups and individuals worked to fill holes and support one another.

That is precisely what we have seen over the course of the past year.

While health care workers across the country engaged an onrushing enemy, it fell to others to support and bolster their efforts. Doctors and nurses swamped with infected patients requiring urgent care could not simultaneously organize the infrastructure to deliver millions upon millions of shots.

In Colorado that infrastructure was built through the exceptional collaboration of government actors, health care systems and private organizations. For example, Colorado’s relative success would not have been possible without the executive leadership of Gov. Jared Polis and the agencies he oversees. 

While a small, vocal minority has decried his executive authority over mask mandates, very little attention has been paid to the myriad executive orders he issued that built a framework for successful vaccine distribution. If he had not expanded the scope of delegation for medical providers, allowed for the temporary licensure of nurses from other states, or set rates for vaccine administration, Colorado vaccination rates would be mired in structural quicksand. 

Those actions in turn allowed COVIDCheck Colorado to partner with health systems like Denver Health and HealthONE to provide vaccination access. Most importantly, it allowed COVIDCheck Colorado to partner with Centura Health at three mass vaccination sites along the Front Range. That is, of course, in addition to the life-saving care those health care systems were already providing to critically ill COVID-19 patients filling their hospital beds.

There were still daily challenges. Vendor spats, staffing shortages and software snafus could quickly eat up 15 and 20 hours a day for each member of the leadership team. And that is before accounting for snowstorms and heat waves.

As each problem arose, COVIDCheck Colorado and its partners stood higher. We shipped in nurses from across the country, built a call-center from scratch to answer patient questions and spent countless hours on videoconferences brainstorming solutions to every conceivable dilemma. And when COVIDCheck Colorado had extra money, it spent it on outreach to underserved communities, particularly under-represented communities of color.

As demand for vaccinations plummeted, Colorado shuttered its mass vaccination program at the end of June. COVIDCheck Colorado followed suit and has returned all of its emphasis to testing. I moved on in July, continuing to serve clients through my law firm.

Yet I am sure I will return to memories of this six-month period many times in the years to come. The last time I spoke with Dr. Shauna Gulley from Centura she summed it up perfectly: “Perspective isn’t always easy in the moment, but when I look back at what we accomplished together and do the math, we probably saved at least 10,000 lives.”

No matter what current challenge we face, that is worth celebrating. For everyone involved.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq