Polis, Experts Deliver World's Most Boring Pitch to Vaccinate Kids

Governor Jared Polis during a May 14 appearance at the kickoff for Cafecito, a gathering of Colorado Latina leaders.
Governor Jared Polis during a May 14 appearance at the kickoff for Cafecito, a gathering of Colorado Latina leaders.
The theme of Governor Jared Polis's May 20 press conference about the state's ongoing efforts to vanquish COVID-19 in Colorado was the importance of getting now-eligible children vaccinated. But the information provided by Polis and a range of medical experts was presented in a manner often so droningly paternalistic that it's hard to know how effective the presentation will be.

Even Polis seemed to drift into a fog at a certain point. Shortly after introducing Dr. Suchitra Rao, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado, and prompting her to talk about studies showing the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine for children in the twelve-to-fifteen-year age range, he did so a second time without seeming to notice that this ground had already been plowed. Rao reacted by politely repeating much of the same information she'd delivered moments before, though blessedly in a slightly more summarized form.

The need for the vaccination of eligible children is high, as demonstrated by the latest outbreaks report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in which well over a third of newly identified sites were associated with kids. And while overall case counts and hospitalizations in Colorado are down (the figures for May 19, show 952 new positive cases, 516 hospitalizations and 6,618 deaths), state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy revealed that the rate of decline among children is considerably lower than for the rest of the population. Moreover, the positivity rate for kids is above the 5 percent threshold considered key to preventing greater spread — and during the month of April, the number of hospitalizations among those in the 0-11 and 12-17 age ranges was similar to the figures from fall 2020, when the pandemic was at its absolute peak.

Rao also noted that evidence indicates that between 10 and 30 percent of children infected with the disease experience lingering effects — information that flies in the face of the popular belief that a case is no big deal for kids.

Since COVID-19 immunizations for children under twelve have not yet been blessed by federal regulators (approval is anticipated this fall), Herlihy stressed that the best way to protect kids now is for all adults in close contact with them to get vaccinated. But she also suggested continued masking and social distancing protocols — an extraordinarily tough sell now that restrictions for fully vaccinated individuals have been lifted for most indoor and outdoor settings.

Next up was CDPHE chief medical officer Dr. Eric France, who was tasked with offering a dumbed-down explanation of how vaccines work; he characterized the medication as presenting a "recipe" of the virus to the patient's system, so that it will be prepared if the real thing pops up. He was followed by Rao, who took turns with France answering questions from Polis about a variety of topics, including the safety of immunizations for pregnant women.

The tone was consistently gentle and reassuring, with the presumed targets of the information being moms and dads who may be a bit hesitant to inoculate their kids but are not hard-core anti-vaxxers. For other foot-draggers, Polis modified his tactics, talking about vaccine clinics that are offering swag to encourage folks to get shots. He mentioned one session at which participants were offered 5,000 miles on Southwest Airlines, as well as an Arapahoe Basin event that paid off in bacon margaritas. He joked that he'd sign up for a shot if he didn't have to drink one.

Despite such deals, vaccine supply is currently much greater than demand — so much so that the state is changing its protocol to allow providers to pierce vials of the medication even if only one person is present, rather than waiting for the eleven folks required to ensure that not a single drop goes unused.

During the question-and-answer session that followed, a reporter asked if Colorado is considering showier efforts to inspire vaccinations, along the lines of a $1 million lottery in Ohio. Polis argued that self-protection and helping the community as a whole end the scourge of COVID-19 should be incentive enough. But there's growing evidence that for a lot of Coloradans, that's not true. Only 11 percent of 12-to-15-year-olds have gotten their first dose so far, and even after months of opportunity, the percentage of 16-to-29-year-olds at that stage is just 44 percent.