Polis Insists COVID Vaccination Process Isn't a Mess

A masked portrait of Governor Jared Polis.
A masked portrait of Governor Jared Polis. 9News via YouTube
Widespread confusion surrounds Colorado's plan to prioritize the distribution of COVID-19 vaccine to all state residents ages seventy and older, as evidenced by a huge January 11 backup at a Pueblo vaccination site that was already over capacity. But no mention of such glitches was made during Governor Jared Polis's January 12 press conference updating the public on efforts to get the novel coronavirus under control.

Instead, Polis and three guests representing medical services partnering with the state — Centura Health CEO Peter Banko, UCHealth Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Richard Zane and Salud Family Health Centers President and CEO John Santistevan — portrayed the operation as moving as smoothly as possible despite a number of challenges, including regular fluctuations in the amount of vaccine the state is receiving and considerable delays in the federal government's distribution efforts involving nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

After noting that the 1,511 COVID-19 new cases counted as of late morning January 12 (the total is likely to go up by late afternoon) and 833 individuals currently hospitalized with the disease represent improvements over the viral surge that swept the state in late November, Polis spoke enthusiastically about the joy he feels when seeing social media posts from septuagenarians celebrating their initial injections. He reiterated the reasons this age group is being vaccinated ahead of teachers, grocery workers and others in phase 1B of the rollout plan: 78 percent of fatalities in Colorado have occurred among those older than seventy.

Right now, about half of the approximately 70,000 weekly doses of vaccine made by Pfizer and Moderna, the two firms whose medications have been approved, are being divvied out by hospitals, with 20 percent or so dispensed by community health agencies such as Salud, another 20 percent going out by way of public agencies like fire departments, and the final 10 percent handled by retail pharmacies. The latter mainly involves Walgreens and CVS, which have a federal contract to serve nursing homes and the like. This multi-tiered approach is intended to ensure vaccine equity, Polis stressed.

The governor expressed confidence that 70 percent of Coloradans age seventy and up will be vaccinated by the end of February despite the uneven vaccine supply; the state doesn't learn how much of the medication it will be receiving until a week before its arrival. And the state will be able to move faster if more medications are approved by federal overseers (Polis cited one manufactured by Johnson & Johnson) and if experts decide that doses of the Moderna version will be just as effective if they're split in half. Right now, one Moderna vial officially translates to ten doses, but Colorado is already squeezing approximately eleven out of each through what Polis characterized as careful measuring. Should the halving approach be approved, that total would double to 22 doses.

The state could be vaccinating many more people than it is currently if supplies were greater, Polis emphasized. One day last week, 27,000 vaccinations were recorded. If the supply had allowed that pace to continue, it would have translated to over 150,000 vaccinations in a week — more than twice the current pace.

During his time at the mic, Centura's Banko conceded that interest in receiving the vaccine is much lower for communities of color than for Caucasians; in a survey, Black and Latinx residents were 44 percent and 22 percent less likely to seek the shots, respectively. Banko blamed this phenomenon on "our history of systemic issues in the medical community," as well as "disinformation, myths and conspiracy theories" that he hopes will be at least partially dispelled by a new public-service campaign that should launch soon. But that doesn't explain why only about 60 percent of health-care workers in the Centura system anticipate getting the vaccine — below the overall goal of 70 percent for all categories, including those seventy and over.

At this point, Centura doesn't have a specific portal where patients can register for vaccines; one should be up and running within a few days, Banko said. In contrast, UCHealth already has one that can be found on the system's website, and chief innovation officer Zane encouraged members of the seventy-and-up crowd who haven't previously been patients at one of UCHealth's hospitals to create online accounts. After they do so, they'll receive an invitation to schedule an appointment on a randomized basis. For his part, Salud's Santistevan talked up thirteen sites in ten different communities that are intended to provide access for medically underserved individuals no matter their documentation status.

The Q&A session began with a reference to new federal recommendations that people 65 and over should receive vaccination priority. Polis promised an announcement within days regarding when such folks will be able to join the growing line for inoculations. (Even though the feds have also suggested pushing up younger people with pre-existing conditions, Polis and Zane said that is less likely in Colorado, since age is a more dominant factor.) The governor also insisted that smaller testing sites that can accommodate 500 to 1,000 patients daily will be more efficient than large-scale operations, since they will be more convenient for most Coloradans — but he acknowledged that some mega-sites could be created down the line.

Asked about a new resolution by the Town of Monument that declares many of his health orders to be unconstitutional, Polis bristled and pointed out that courts have upheld all but one of his mandates. In response to another query, he said that he is in conversation with the Colorado State Patrol about possible demonstrations at the Capitol in advance of President-elect Joe Biden's January 20 inauguration, and didn't rule out the possibility that the National Guard could be deployed.

Finally, Polis said he was looking forward to the days when getting a COVID-19 vaccination will not require an appointment and should be as easy as receiving a flu shot. But he doubts that will be a reality until fall at the earliest — another indication that the pandemic is far from over.
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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