Why Are Denver Vaccine Mandates Up When COVID Deaths Are Down?

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock as seen during his recent state-of-the-city address.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock as seen during his recent state-of-the-city address.
On August 2, while discussing Denver's fight against COVID-19, Mayor Michael Hancock announced a vaccine mandate for city staffers and many private employees working in high-risk occupations. That announcement raised many questions from residents, including this one: Why take such an action at a time when so few people in Denver are dying from the disease?

According to the COVID-19 data summary page maintained by Denver Public Health, deaths from the virus in this city are at some of their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic. But the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment argues that given the upswing in cases and hospitalizations, immunizations are the best way to prevent a spate of future casualties.

According to a DDPHE spokesperson, "Denver’s numbers are trending in the wrong direction, and we need more people to be fully vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus before the fall and winter months, when respiratory illnesses traditionally increase, and prevent our hospitalization and death rates from rising."

Hancock's mandate applies to all 10,000 members of Denver's municipal workforce, including police officers, sheriff's deputies and firefighters, as well as employees at "congregate-care facilities" such as senior centers, homeless shelters, hospitals and jails. Furthermore, all teachers and staffers at schools in Denver — whether private, public or post-secondary — must be inoculated, and that includes ancillary service providers like janitorial crews contracted to clean educational institutions. Final doses must be received by September 15, and after September 30, unvaccinated individuals who fall under the mandate won't be allowed to work on site or in the field and could face firing.

In the meantime, deaths from COVID-19 continue to drop in Denver. There were zero deaths from the disease in Denver County during the week of August 8, the most recent for which statistics are available. The previous week, there were two; the week before that, four fatalities.

At the same time, though, new hospitalizations from COVID-19 have roughly doubled in less than two months; there were thirteen in Denver the week of June 13, but 25 for the week of August 1. And the seven-day moving average of new cases more than quadrupled between July 8, when there were 27, and August 5, when there were 130.

These numbers underscore the DDPHE's defense of Hancock's mandate.

"Cases of COVID-19 are increasing, including cases of the highly contagious Delta variant," the department's representative notes. "While Denver’s vaccination rate is relatively high at 74.3 percent [for residents twelve and older], it’s not enough to protect everyone or to slow the Delta variant strain that is many more times infectious than previous strains."

The spokesperson continues: "Denver’s COVID case rate is higher now, even with 70 percent of the population vaccinated, than it was at the same time last year, and we must take swift action to prevent a spike in tragedy and death like we saw last winter. Scientific evidence shows that unvaccinated people are fueling the transmission of the Delta variant and ultimately contributing to the creation and spread of new variants. Achieving a high vaccination rate, including ensuring that all Denver employees, as well as private-sector workers in high-risk settings, are fully vaccinated is our best protection against more restrictive public health measures and economic impacts."

So far, the department has been pleased by the lack of pushbacks to the mandates. "Employees have until September 30, 2021, to provide their vaccination records per the public health order, so we don’t know the percentage of employees who are vaccinated as of today," the spokesperson notes. "The Office of Human Resources will collect the information and provide reminders to employees throughout the process. We do not know the current number of employees that are vaccinated, but in a recent employee survey, over 70 percent of employees indicated they intend to get vaccinated."