Confusion defines process as Colorado seniors wait for vaccines

Metro residents 70-plus will have more access in coming weeks; teachers must wait, Tri-County Health Department says


As Colorado continued the early stages of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Gov. Jared Polis announced that people 70 and older would soon be eligible for vaccination in certain areas.

The No. 1 question during a Tri-County Health Department town hall roughly a week later: How will those 70-plus-year-olds actually get it?

“We understand that it's frustrating that 'eligible' has not yet equaled 'access,'” Kaitlin Wolff, Tri-County Health's COVID-19 vaccine coordinator, told callers during an online and telephone town hall event Jan. 7, where local officials took questions from callers.

As of that night, it appeared that residents age 70 and older in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties — and possibly nearby areas — didn't all have an immediate avenue to vaccination as shipments of COVID-19 vaccines from the federal government remained small, Wolff said.

“Our clinics are unable to provide vaccines to community members who are 70 or older right now,” said the website for Tri-County Health, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas.

The governor announced that, starting Dec. 30, people 70 and older are eligible for the vaccine. But whether they can access it depends on vaccine availability. Some hospitals and other health care providers in the Tri-County jurisdiction have begun “phase 1B vaccinations” — a stage that includes people 70 and older but also some health care workers, first responders and “essential” workers — but not every provider has moved into that phase, according to Tri-County's website.

“Since limited amounts of the vaccine come in weekly, and even smaller amounts are distributed throughout the state, not every provider has all the vaccine needed to vaccinate everyone 70 and older,” the website said as of Jan. 7.

The earlier phase 1A started in mid-December and includes the highest-risk health care workers, and staff and residents at long-term care facilities — places such as nursing homes and other care locations.

Once areas have taken care of those with higher priority, they can move on to Coloradans 70 and older.

Those people should expect that “more and more places will start offering” the vaccine, Wolff said. Hospitals and federally qualified health centers are among the places where those Coloradans could receive the vaccine, she added.

“We expect all our hospital partners in our three counties and the metro area — or most of them — should be opening clinics for 70-plus” residents, Wolff said, adding that scheduling will likely look different in different places. “But the role of state health department and Tri-County will be to (show) that information.”

That information was to appear on both the state and Tri-County's websites, and staff were pulling that information together “right now,” Wolff continued.

A caller who identified herself as a 91-year-old mother asked if the public needs to register online, noting that she and other seniors may have trouble signing up on the internet.

Many health care systems, such as Centura Health and UCHealth, have information displayed on the state's COVID-19 website, noted John Douglas, head of Tri-County.

Systems for scheduling appointments may require computer access, Douglas noted.

“For our seniors who aren't so computer (savvy), we're working with the state health department on how we reach out to those people,” Douglas said. He added: “We want to make sure they don't get left out.”

Who's up next?

In early December, the state listed that the highest-risk health care workers and individuals, and then moderate-risk health care workers and first responders — phases 1A and 1B — were to have access to the vaccine this winter, according to Colorado's COVID-19 website.

Up next in phase 2 were other high-risk individuals and essential workers in spring, and then would come the general public — anyone age 18-64 without high-risk health conditions — in the summer. That's phase 3.

Colorado's recent update to the timeline expanded the list of those eligible in phase 1B, adding people 70 and older and certain frontline “essential” workers. Those now include health care workers with less direct contact with COVID-19 patients, first responders and correctional employees along with workers in education, food and agriculture, manufacturing, public transit, grocery stores, direct care providers for Coloradans experiencing homelessness and other professions.

“We utilized our first doses at the end of December for our highest-risk health care workers,” Wolff said. She added: “We are finishing up that group of people and moving on to other health care workers who are less high-risk and other first responders.”

Amid calls from school district leaders to prioritize school staff for vaccinations, the state's move of teachers and others who work in education to phase 1B came as welcome news in that industry. But several weeks may still pass before the vaccine generally reaches school staff. Taken together, all the timeline changes may place education workers in line for late winter or spring — a spot that likely comes too late to affect in-person learning for the spring semester.

“I'm hearing we're not going to have our vaccine until after everyone 70-plus, so that's looking like March,” a teacher said during the telephone town hall.

Wolff said she thinks March is a good estimate for when teachers will have access. In an interview by phone Jan. 8, she emphasized that that is subject to change, though.

“It's hard for everyone to feel like they're not first, but that's the order Colorado has established for the moment,” said Wolff, who noted that the order is based on “a lot of ethical and medical considerations.”

Lower-risk health care workers

A group that does have a clear path to the vaccine currently is health care workers who have less direct risk of contracting COVID-19.

Questions from a caller who owns a clinic for chiropractic care and massage therapy, and from a caller who works at a dental office, sought to determine how employees in those kinds of settings could access the vaccine.

For such medical providers who have not been connected to a source for vaccination, Tri-County Health is “actively taking requests,” Wolff said.

She advised such medical workers to determine a contact at their companies who can call Tri-County and provide information on which employees should get vaccinated. Tri-County is working to match medical providers to people who will administer the vaccine for their workers, Wolff said. The department plans to follow up within weeks, she added.

She and Douglas emphasized the haphazard nature of rolling out a vaccine quickly amid a pandemic.

“The analogy of the year, as Dr. Douglas says, is we are constantly building an airplane as we're flying it,” Wolff said.


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