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COVID-19 Colorado: Numbers Game With Vaccination Data

Governor Jared Polis getting vaccinated earlier this year.
Governor Jared Polis getting vaccinated earlier this year.
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Figuring out how well Colorado is doing with COVID-19 vaccinations hasn't been easy.

A case in point: For our story about the chaos caused by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's May 13 announcement about loosening indoor and outdoor mask-use guidelines, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told us that 47 percent of the state's residents were fully vaccinated. But five days later, on May 18, the New York Times tracker showing that Colorado had the worst COVID-19 data in the country put the total of fully vaccinated individuals in the state at 41 percent.

Why the discrepancy? The New York Times uses CDC data that counts the total population, including children under twelve, who have not yet been approved to be immunized against the novel coronavirus. In contrast, the CDPHE prefers to only count individuals who are eligible for vaccination — those twelve and up. Indeed, when we again asked the CDPHE for  the percentage of Colorado's total population that's been fully vaccinated, the department simply didn't provide it, instead offering only the number for eligible individuals twelve and up who'd been vaccinated: 48.3 percent.

As of today, May 20, the New York Times's Colorado COVID-19 stats are a bit better than those shared two days ago. The state currently has the second-worst data in the country, behind Delaware — and Colorado's vaccination percentage is up a notch, to 42 percent.

There's a cosmetic advantage to using vaccination percentages for eligible Coloradans as opposed to the population as a whole, since a 48.3 percent rate looks better than 42 percent — and the CDPHE wants its approach to dominate. "The NYT is pulling data from the CDC, but we have been in touch with them over the last week and they plan to start pulling data directly from our dashboard so there won’t be any kind of lag," a CDPHE spokesperson tells Westword. "We recommend our dashboard as the best source of Colorado-specific data."

The CDPHE was more transparent when answering other specific questions about vaccination rates. According to the department, 9.1 percent of Coloradans between the ages of twelve and fifteen have received one shot of the Pfizer vaccine, the only treatment approved for that group; full protection doesn't occur until two weeks after the second dose. In the sixteen-to-eighteen-year-old category, 38.2 percent have received at least one shot, and 26.2 percent are fully vaccinated.

The low vaccination numbers for twelve-to-fifteen-year-olds aren't surprising, since shots for this demographic were only approved a little over a week ago. But sixteen-to-eighteen-year-olds have been eligible for inoculation since the first week of April — and children dominate the latest COVID-19 outbreaks reported by the state. But the CDPHE isn't panicking about the laggard pace.

"Although we are proud of the progress we have achieved, we won’t be satisfied until every Coloradan who wants a vaccine has received a vaccine," the agency states. "We have many strategies in place to get everyone the information they need to make an informed choice — as well as ensure easy access to the vaccine for everyone. We are fortunate now to have an ample vaccine supply, and anyone who wants a vaccine can easily schedule an appointment or walk up to one of the state’s community vaccination sites. Find a vaccine provider at covid19.colorado.gov/vaccine."

The state spokesperson adds: "Coloradans have worked hard to keep each other safe, and much progress has been made toward ending the crisis brought on by this pandemic. Increased vaccine uptake rates throughout the state have allowed us to embrace the CDC’s updated mask guidance last week, and we have now passed the 5.2M mark for doses administered. The uptake in vaccinations among 12-15-year-olds is very positive news because children ages 12-15 make up nearly 300,000 Coloradans, and their vaccination rates will be key to helping us achieve our goals."

In the meantime, the spokesperson continues, "We know we need to do more to get vaccines to communities of color and rural Coloradans, and we have a multifaceted information and outreach campaign to do that.... Inoculation will allow us to achieve community immunity and return to the things we love. To get there, we need people to choose to get the vaccination. We want to (a) make it easy for people to know how/where to get a vaccine, (b) give them information about why the vaccine is safe, effective, and necessary, and (c) answer questions people have so they can make informed decisions about their health. We are committed to answering every question and reaching the hardest-to-reach populations."

The CDPHE touts its vaccination publicity campaign, which uses both "traditional tactics (i.e., commercials, radio spots, etc.), but also grassroots, community-based tactics (i.e., influencers, out of home advertisements, printed materials, two-way texting)." To receive the latest COVID-19 vaccination information, you can text the word "vaccine" in English or "vacuna" in Spanish to 1-855-355-4566. In addition, the department cites its mobile vaccination clinics and the recent launch of Colorado’s Workplace Vaccination Program.

There's still a lot of work to be done, since 58 percent of Coloradans haven't been vaccinated yet — although the CDPHE would prefer you to think of it as 51.7 percent.

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