Colorado Moves Up Homeless Shelter Staffers on Vaccine Priority List

Shelter staff are moving up on the COVID vaccine priorization list.
Shelter staff are moving up on the COVID vaccine priorization list. Chris Walker
A week after homeless-service providers called on the state to put shelter staffers and people experiencing homelessness higher on the vaccine distribution list, Colorado public-health officials moved those who work with the homeless higher on the priority list, but homeless individuals stayed where they were.

"We are thrilled that service providers were moved up as we suggested and hoped for. That will make sure that our shelters can stay staffed and continue to serve folks," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Among other changes on the updated list, released December 30, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment moved homeless shelter staff to phase 1B of the vaccine distribution plan, up from phase 2; as a result, shelter staff will be able to receive the COVID vaccine this winter. Phase 1A, which targeted front-line health-care workers and nursing home residents and staff, is set to wrap up shortly.

People experiencing homelessness who are 64 and younger and without comorbidities remain in phase 3 of the vaccine distribution list, which means they'll get vaccinated in the summer, along with the rest of the general public.
Homeless-service providers had urged prioritizing vaccinations of homeless individuals mainly to prevent outbreaks in shelters, which have occurred frequently during the pandemic.

While there have been few detailed studies into the effect of COVID on people experiencing homelessness in Denver, the data generally indicates that COVID is more prevalent in shelters than it is in unsanctioned encampments in Denver. Service providers and the City of Denver have had to cut shelter capacity almost in half in order to meet social distancing requirements, but outbreaks still occur.

"In congregate settings, while we're all working hard to have space where we can socially distance, there's only so much we can do," says Christina Carlson, CEO of Urban Peak, a nonprofit that operates multiple homeless shelters. "People sleep there and they eat there."

While the CDPHE did not prioritize vaccinations for people experiencing homelessness, Alderman and other homeless-service providers in Denver have been pursuing other options, too.

"We're having conversations with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment about whether there might be some flexibility and discretion for local public health departments to think about prioritization a little bit differently, because there's nothing in the language that would prohibit people experiencing homelessness being prioritized at a higher level now," Alderman explains. "That is something that we were afraid of with this new guidance, that there would be a prohibition."

In conversations with Westword, city officials have confirmed that they're willing to use that discretion, and plan to include people experiencing homelessness in phase 2 of the Denver vaccination list.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.