At the end of December, Karen Zink called San Juan Basin Public Health Executive Director Liane Jollon to see how she could help in the COVID-19 vaccination effort.
“I said, ‘What are your plans for vaccinating the community?’ She said, ‘We have none,’” said Zink, a certified nurse practitioner who was born and raised in Durango.
She wasn’t surprised. There was no federal plan for implementing the vaccine, and no guidance for local public health departments from the state. SJBPH, she said, is extremely busy, underfunded and low on staff.
So Zink took it upon herself to get the La Plata County community vaccination effort up and running – one that has already vaccinated hundreds of residents and will continue to vaccinate thousands more.
Taking the lead on a health initiative wasn’t new to Zink, who founded Southwest Women’s Health. She already knew what it would take to find a site, contact volunteers and set up a health clinic. She’d been doing it for about 41 years as a volunteer with 9Health Fair, which offers low-cost health screenings to hundreds of community members.
“This model is ahead of the curve,” Zink said. “Ideas for a mass vaccination planning are just culminating as we speak.”
Within days of her call with Jollon, Zink was in contact with the 9Health Fair team. Zink called Charley Kier, who has been site coordinator for the 9Health Fair for 20 years. Without him, she said, the clinic wouldn’t have been possible.
He was sitting at home when his phone rang and he saw Zink on the display.
“I knew exactly why she was calling,” Kier said.
Kier jumped into the project, and the Community COVID-19 Vaccination Team “hit the ground running,” he said.
They quickly received assistance from law enforcement, city and county governments, fire agencies and health professionals.
“My cellphone is a heck of a tool. ... A lot of the volunteers were in my personal roster,” Zink said. “Everyone was like, ‘I’m so glad we can help with something.’”
Within weeks, they had 200 volunteers committed to seeing the vaccination process through. By Jan. 23, they held their first community clinic and vaccinated 300 residents at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
Currently, people ages 70 and older can receive vaccines during the weekly events. People can sign up on the SJBPH website to receive notifications about vaccine availability.
“The immediate help and cooperation we’ve received from the community, the volunteers ... it’s just a tender thing that the community will be so responsive to taking care of its people,” Zink said.
Kier described Zink as the vaccination team’s cheerleader, organizer and head honcho.
“Karen is somebody you can’t say no to when she reaches out for a project,” Kier said.
Kier first met Zink at a Durango Lion’s Club meeting in 1997.
“At one of our first meetings, she asked me, ‘Have you heard of the 9Health Fair?’ I said, ‘Heard of it? I was the site coordinator the last two years in Longmont,’” Kier said. “I immediately realized, before I finished the sentence, it meant I was going to be the site coordinator for 9Health Fair here.”
He estimated the Community COVID-19 Vaccination Team jammed about 90 days worth of work into two weeks. It was a massive amount of labor hours by a large number of people, but Zink has been there every step of the way.
Keir wasn’t sure where she got her energy, but he wished she could bottle it up and give him some, he said.
“She is a dynamo. I don’t know how she does it – I think it’s just a passion of hers,” Kier said.
Zink started her medical career as a critical care nurse in large hospitals in Denver. She moved there for college with her husband and high school sweetheart, Jerry Zink.
Zink wasn’t surprised that his wife had taken on the vaccination clinic. It was common for her to take charge of a group of volunteers, he said.
“Her personality involves a strong leadership component. It’s what fills her gas tank. It’s what makes her tick,” Zink said. “She has a lot of interpersonal skills, and this is an outlet for that that gives her a lot of reward.”
Zink has also made his mark on Durango as a board member with the La Plata Open Space Conservancy, owner of Sunnyside Meats and co-founder of the multimillion-dollar company StoneAge Tools.
“We’ve each helped the other,” Zink said. “Her (projects) are much different from mine, so interaction with her projects has certainly helped me participate more in the community in ways I otherwise would not have.”
Karen Zink says community service was ingrained in her by her parents, and she took their message to heart.
“It started happening at age 9,” she said. “... I grew up in a very purposeful family, I would say.”
She enrolled in 4-H and learned to manage a sheep herd and agricultural business by her teens. By the end of high school, she had raised enough money by selling her sheep to put her through nursing school, Zink said.
Zink went on to earn a master’s degree in community health nursing and women’s health from the University of Colorado. In 2013, she was voted “best nurse” by The Durango Herald Readers’ Choice Awards.
Her commitment to serving the Durango community comes down to three words.
“Stewardship, protection, love – those are my three guiding words,” Zink said. “I feel lucky to have been born here.”