Colorado’s vaccine distribution plan entered Phase 1B in January, as vaccine providers such as Peak Vista Community Health Centers began inoculating people age 70 and older, the next-highest priority after frontline health care workers (1A). Phase 1 — which is broken into two parts — is anticipated to last throughout the winter months, targeting frontline health care workers and first responders, the elderly, essential employees in key industries such as education, food and agriculture, human services providers, elected officials and frontline journalists.
Phase 2 comes next and targets individuals with pre-existing conditions and other essential workers. Experts expect that phase to begin in the spring. Phase 3, which includes anyone age 16-59, will start this summer. According to the El Paso County Public Health Vaccine Dashboard, 39,479 doses have been administered, and 8,463 immunization series have been completed as of Jan. 26.
“Right now, our top priority is to continue to be a national leader in ensuring vaccines are being rapidly distributed and put into the arms of as many Coloradans as possible,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a Jan. 12 news conference. “Partnerships with health care providers across the state, including those who joined us today, are one highly effective way Colorado will be able to vaccinate all Coloradans and finally beat this crisis.”
Peak Vista Community Health Centers began vaccinating patients older than 70 at its Jet Wing Drive location on Jan. 12.
“As the supply is available, we’re starting with our patients over 70, and we’ve reached out to those and will continue to do that so they can make an appointment to get a vaccine,” said Amy Welsh, the Peak Vista director of communications. “We have had a tremendous response. We have scheduled all the appointments we have available, and have a waitlist of people.”
The incredible demand for the vaccine has generated some confusion for Colorado residents as different counties move into phase 1B at different times. Pueblo County began vaccinating individuals in the over-70 age group on Jan. 11.
“Some of these announcements come out as a surprise where we’re all kind of learning about them at the same time,” said Michelle Hewitt, El Paso County Public Health public information officer. “There’s just such a limited supply across the board. The federal allocation of vaccine to the state of Colorado is [proportional to its population]. Colorado is 1.69 percent of the nation’s population and is receiving that amount available into the state.
“After that, the state has not provided additional guidance on how vaccine is being allocated to local county jurisdictions. El Paso County is not behind the curve; similar to other counties and states across the nation, we are all dealing with limited supply and waiting for the supply to catch up to the demand. Vaccines are being administered in accordance with the distribution plan and within the phased approach of a constrained supply. We anticipate supply will increase over time, but we anticipated and planned that it would take several months to get through Phase 1.”
The supply of the vaccine came into question Jan. 15, after the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who admitted there is not a federal reserve of the vaccine. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, recently told Fox News Sunday she doesn’t know exactly how much vaccine the federal government does have.
“Vaccines in Colorado are not sitting in a warehouse or on a shelf and we need more vaccines immediately to protect our most vulnerable residents over the age of 70 and ultimately to end this horrible pandemic,” Polis said in a Jan. 25 news release. “It’s well known by now that the Trump administration failed Americans in many aspects of the COVID vaccine rollout and I continue to urge our federal partners and the new Biden administration in Washington to ramp up vaccine distribution right away. Colorado is ready to immediately use three to four times as many vaccines as we are currently getting each week right away. The sooner Colorado gets more vaccines, the quicker we can get them into arms, and the faster we can help our small businesses and economy build back stronger. We’re ready and welcome renewed federal assistance to get the job done.”
One other complicating factor? Vaccine providers require special certification to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Some of the requirements to enroll as a vaccine provider: [Providers] must be credentialed or licensed in Colorado to possess or administer vaccines, or provide vaccination services; they would have to sign and agree to conditions in the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Vaccination Provider Agreement and then they would have to fully complete the CDC’s Vaccination Provider Profile form for each location where the vaccine would be administered, even if that location is under a larger corporate umbrella,” Hewitt said.
Peak Vista was certified earlier, said Dr. Joel Tanaka, Peak Vista’s senior vice president of medical services.
“That was done months ago,” he said. “The leadership here was very proactive, back in October.”
El Paso County Public Health maintains a list of providers on its website, elpasocountyhealth.org/covid-19-vaccine, and is working to add more.
“We do, on our website right now, have a list of some of those providers people can contact,” says Hewitt. “We’ve got UCHealth, and they’ve got a portal where you can sign up, and it gives you options there if you’re a patient or if you’re not. We’ve got options for Centura and Kaiser Permanente, and then some of our other small groups like Matthews-Vu and Optum. That gives people a starting point.”
In the early stages of the vaccine distribution process, large providers, like UCHealth, were prioritized due to the Pfizer vaccine’s storage requirements.
“The biggest challenge with the Pfizer [vaccine] was the ultra-cold storage,” Hewitt said, “so the reason those shipments went to hospitals first is because they’re one of the few entities that have the ability with their equipment to store a vaccine that cold. A lot of providers just don’t have the capacity to store a vaccine at those temperatures. Moderna eases some of that because it doesn’t require that same level of storage, so it makes it a little easier.”
State officials hope to have most people older than 70 vaccinated before March.
“[Gov.] Polis has set forth the goal of, by the end of February, having 70 percent of our 70-plus population vaccinated,” said Hewitt. “Roughly, what we’re telling people is basically planning for Phase 1 to last through the winter months. We are starting to move into 1B and hope to be able to move through more people, and then move into the second phase likely in the spring months, and more into the general public probably by summer.”
As more individuals receive the vaccination, Hewitt emphasizes that precautions such as wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and frequent handwashing will need to continue throughout all vaccination phases.
“The good news for the COVID vaccine is that it is so effective at over 90 percent,” said Hewitt, “whereas flu shots vary from year to year, but are typically around 40 to 60 percent effective against circulating strains. They’re still trying to figure out what that means, and herd immunity, so in the meantime it is very important to practice those [preventive] measures. Even after you get your vaccine it will still take a couple weeks for your body to build immunity.”