The COVID-19 Stats Colorado Isn't Sharing With the Public

Colorado Governor Jared Polis getting vaccinated in late January.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis getting vaccinated in late January.
Colorado has been among the national leaders in transparency regarding COVID-19, publishing loads of information on the state health department's website that is easily accessed by the public.

But there's one type of statistic the state isn't planning to share: the number of people who contract the novel coronavirus after being vaccinated.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirms that this information is being collected. But the state is planning to send it to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rather than posting it online.

"We will be reporting limited information to the CDC concerning individuals who completed their vaccine series and tested positive," a CDPHE spokesperson confirms. "CDC will likely publish national data when it becomes available."

The department doesn't offer a reason for this decision, but of late, agencies on a national level have tweaked their messaging to avoid providing any excuses for individuals who are uncertain whether they want to be inoculated.

One example involves the efficacy of vaccines. Public health officials trumpeted the protection offered by the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna regimes, whose efficacy rates are reportedly in the 95 percent range — a truly astonishing figure that exceeded most experts' expectations. In contrast, the recently approved one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has an efficacy rate of approximately 66 percent in preventing moderate-to-severe cases of the novel coronavirus, and 85 percent effectiveness in stopping the most serious infections.

Perceptions about these differences came to the fore last week, when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan turned down a batch of the J&J vaccine under the theory that while the medication is "very good," Pfizer and Moderna "are the best — and I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the City of Detroit get the best." Duggan subsequently accepted the J&J vaccine after being roundly criticized, and since then, officials have stopped mentioning the 66 percent figure in favor of noting that all three vaccines are virtually 100 percent effective in preventing hospitalization and death. They've also encouraged anyone with a chance to take the J&J vaccine to do so.

Against this backdrop, we asked the CDPHE if it plans to track how many people who've been vaccinated contract the virus. The department's response: "Yes, we are monitoring several aspects of disease transmission, and that is one of them."

As a followup, we asked whether the CDPHE would be recording where infected individuals were in the vaccination process — for instance, if the infected person had received only one shot less than two weeks earlier; if that person had received only one shot more than two weeks before; if that person had received the second shot less than two weeks earlier; if that person had gotten the second shot more than two weeks before; or whether that person had received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The CDPHE's reply: "Providers are required to report all positive cases, and we collect the vaccine history when we report cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We include anyone who has tested positive who completed their vaccine series at least two weeks prior to testing positive."

We then posed two more questions: Are there concerns that people might be less likely to be vaccinated if they see evidence that some people who've gotten their shots are getting infected? Or do you feel that transparency of the sort Polis has talked about since the beginning of the pandemic trumps such concerns?

"Scientists are working to learn more about COVID-19 variants," the CDPHE answered. "Early research suggests that the currently authorized vaccines are effective against the variants, though perhaps to varying degrees depending on the strain. Getting vaccinated greatly reduces the risk of illness if you are exposed to the virus. As we would expect to see with any vaccination, there are likely to be individuals who contract COVID-19 after they’ve been vaccinated."

The CDPHE then added: "Because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses — and then two weeks — to reach maximum effectiveness, we expect a small number of individuals could contract COVID-19 between those doses. As is the case with all vaccines, people could contract COVID-19 even if they have been fully vaccinated. That said, getting the vaccine significantly reduces the likelihood of serious illness, and there is increasing evidence that vaccination prevents mild illness and reduces transmission."

In other words, every Coloradan should get vaccinated even if a few residents still become infected with COVID-19. But for now, at least, we're unlikely to know how many do.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts