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Vaccinations Having Little Impact on COVID Spread So Far, Polis Admits

A portrait of Colorado Governor Jared Polis.
A portrait of Colorado Governor Jared Polis.
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During a January 26 press conference about the spread of COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's Dr. Rachel Herlihy talked up the state's success at lowering the case rate of the virus; at present, Colorado ranks eleventh-best in the country in this category. But they both acknowledged that vaccinations can't yet be credited with the improvements, since only around 7 to 8 percent of the state's residents have received even their first dose of the vaccine thus far, and the number of people who have gotten two injections is far lower.

As a result, Polis and Herlihy both underscored the importance of not celebrating a victory over the virus too soon by slacking when it comes to safety protocols, such as wearing facial coverings in public, social distancing and avoiding get-togethers with people beyond your household. "If we can keep it up the way we are now, we can minimize losses," Polis emphasized. "If we revert to what led to big increases in October and November, we could lose another five, six, seven, eight thousand people. There could be more losses ahead of us than behind us. So let's stay on this path."

The most recent daily case count shows 1,158 new infections and 674 hospitalizations — the latter an increase of thirty in 24 hours. But Polis wasn't nearly as concerned about that figure, which has vacillated since the start of the pandemic, as he was about a decrease in testing that has pushed the state's positivity rate back up to 7.46 percent, well above the 5 percent threshold preferred by public-health officials. If that number keeps climbing, epidemiologists will have less of an idea of where the virus is most prevalent in the state. But on average, Polis revealed, experts believe one in 115 Coloradans is contagious — a significant improvement over the stats seen in the fall, but one that still carries significant risk.

In terms of vaccine supply, Polis said the state has been told that 80,290 doses should be available next week. That number is similar to what Colorado has been receiving, and while President Joe Biden's administration has stated that more meds should be on the way to individual states soon, Polis isn't counting on them until they're in hand. He also praised the success of a mass vaccination event at Coors Field this past weekend, during which approximately 1,000 people ages seventy and above were inoculated, and teased a larger version to take place at the same site next weekend. The goal is to get 10,000 people vaccinated at that time; eligible individuals can visit uchealth.org/covidvaccine to get on the list for an appointment. But he stressed that such high-profile gatherings won't replace smaller and mid-sized vaccination locations around the state.

As of January 26, Polis said that 85 percent of those included in phase 1A of the vaccination program (including medical professionals who work directly with COVID-19 patients) have gotten at least their first shot, as have residents and staffers at 97 percent of skilled-nursing facilities in the state. He continues to be confident that 70 percent of everyone ages seventy and up will have joined them by the end of February and perhaps even sooner, opening up the opportunity to launch phase 1B, which encompasses teachers, child-care providers and other essential workers, a little ahead of schedule.

At that point, Polis ceded the spotlight to Herlihy, who discussed improving trends related to cases and hospitalizations and displayed modeling data indicating that these metrics will get even better as more Coloradans are vaccinated; about a quarter of the state's population is expected to do so by late April if Biden's promise of 100 million doses in 100 days is kept. She also provided information about variants of the virus, including the United Kingdom version known as B.1.1.7. Only ten cases of mutated strains have been specifically identified in Colorado thus far, and Herlihy said that if Colorado is able to keep case counts low, the chances of the modified disease wreaking greater havoc will be reduced but not eliminated.

Right now, transmission control through masking, social distancing and other safety efforts is estimated at 78 percent in Colorado, and Herlihy believes any potential surge can be kept at bay if these levels are maintained for the next two or three months. If not, the situation could get dicey again.

During the subsequent Q&A, one question involved reports that some pharmacies in different areas are telling people they can't get vaccinated if they're from a different county. Polis decried such practices and stressed again that everyone seventy and older is eligible to get the vaccine anywhere in the state without regard to address, insurance status or anything else. Even more problematic, in his view, are anecdotes about people well under seventy getting the vaccine in some places. Unless there are extenuating circumstances (such as the prospect of a dose being wasted unless a younger person gets it), he said providers who are found to be skirting priority rules could have their distribution rights yanked.

In the meantime, Polis hinted at upcoming changes to the state's current dial dashboard to reflect newly understood best practices — and more shakeups are being envisioned for the future as vaccination percentages rise. The idea is that the dial will be relaxed once what he described as "the crisis phase" of the pandemic ends, with its complete elimination to follow once herd immunity is firmly established. In his view, however, "this virus will be with humanity indefinitely. I think there will be people who die from it in 2022, 2028, 2035, just as there are people who die of the measles or a wide variety of illnesses. But it will be a low number."

He added: "We don't know the length of protection" from the vaccine. "It will likely be a shot that needs renewal, and it's also possible that new variants will require tweaks. But largely, humanity will conquer this and relegate it to a rare event. It will just be another disease that exists in the large host of diseases that plague humanity."

We're not at that stage yet, Polis emphasized. But in the marathon fight against COVID-19, he argued, we're approaching the last mile.

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