Roaring Fork Valley health leaders say high levels of local demand for coronavirus vaccines are outpacing new shipments of doses from the state. That is partially due to recent and sudden changes to the state’s priority guidelines, which made people 70 years of age or older eligible for the vaccine.
“We’re definitely ordering more vaccine than is coming,” said Carrie Godes, public health specialist for Garfield County. “It is coming, but it’s slow. A lot of our messages that we have been urging are for patience. We’re optimistic, we’re hopeful, we are administering doses.”
Changes to who is eligible
Local health departments said they were not given much warning about changes from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment which made more people eligible in phase one of inoculation. That meant they had to scramble to strategize new distribution plans with area hospitals.
“It’s pretty safe to say that threw every health department for a loop,” Godes said. “It’s all good, we just learned pretty much at the same moment that the general public learned.”
Those changes also meant a spate of calls from confused and frustrated residents.
“I get it. This is literally a matter of life and death for people,” she said. “Getting the vaccine is incredibly important and we’re rushing to get this out, as soon as we get doses, to get these out as quickly as we possibly can.”
To keep pace with that demand, local health departments are requesting large quantities of the vaccine to distribute in their communities. As of late, the state has been giving them less than they ordered.
For example, Aspen Valley Hospital requested 1,500 doses for the next two weeks, but received 100 from the state. Later, the state told Pitkin County it would receive 1,000 additional doses for residents 70 and older.
Pitkin County health officials said initial explanation from the state was limited, but they were told it was a measure to keep all counties moving along at the same pace.
“It was a little bit of a surprise,” said Carlyn Porter with the Pitkin County Public Health Department. “We heard back from CDPHE that they had to prioritize some of the counties that were still working through 1A before they could allocate for 1B. Not a ton of clarity as to why our numbers were quite that low. The general response from CDPHE is that there’s not enough to go around.”
Vaccinating the next group
Health officials in the Roaring Fork Valley say they have not hit many hurdles in local vaccine rollout. Once doses arrive, they are quickly being administered to people eligible to receive them, and none in Pitkin or Garfield county have gone unused or expired. Porter said an early showing of “massive demand” is reassuring after initial worries that many people might be skeptical of the vaccine.
Liz Stark, director of Community Health Services in Aspen, said those successes have left limited supply as the only major roadblock. Her nonprofit is one of two vaccine providers in the county. They requested 300 doses for the next two weeks, but only received 100.
“We all want it a lot faster, so it can feel frustrating as a local public health agency,” she said. “But we have to be patient with what information the state has to push down to us.
Pitkin County is using an online form to build a list of those who want the vaccine. Interested residents can enter their information, including age and profession, and will be notified when they can request an appointment to receive an injection. As of Thursday, a total of 5,266 people had filled out the form.
“Until the supply we have meets the demand, it will essentially be a lottery system of randomly generating people from the list within the priority groups,” Porter said.
The county will begin vaccinating residents 70 and older starting Saturday, randomly selecting 100 of them from the pre-registration list.
According to census data 2,300 Pitkin County residents are 70 or older, and more than 1,600 in that age range have already pre-registered. As more vaccines become available, second homeowners and long-term renters who are age eligible will be included in the county’s 1B category.
When can I get a vaccine?
The state has laid out a timeline for who will be vaccinated when, and local vaccine distributors will be following that guidance closely without being left much of their own authority.
“There are very specific guidelines for vaccine providers to follow, and if the providers do not follow the state guidelines, they are at risk of losing their status as a vaccine provider,” said Carlyn Porter with Pitkin County Public Health.
Currently, the state is in Phase 1 of vaccine distribution, which it plans to complete by spring. Most adults in Colorado will likely have to wait until summer to receive the vaccine, when it is made available to the general public.
Pitkin and Garfield counties are still working through Phase 1A, which includes frontline health workers and long-term care facility staff and residents. Pitkin County said it expects to complete 1A by Jan. 15.
Phase 1B includes moderate-risk health care workers and first responders. The state’s recent update also put people 70 years and older in this category. After those groups are vaccinated, the next batch includes teachers, government officials, front-line journalists, as well as those working in food and agriculture, manufacturing, the postal service, public transit, grocery and public health.
In the spring, the state plans to move into Phase 2, which is designed to cover higher-risk individuals and other essential workers. That includes people age 60-69 and people age 16-59 with obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease, significant heart disease, chronic kidney disease, cancer, or who are immunocompromised.
Phase 2 will also include “other essential workers” who were not covered in the first phase, as well as adults who received a placebo during a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial.
Phase 3 will likely start in the summer, at which point the vaccine will be made available to anyone age 16-59 that has not already been vaccinated. The state warns that the timeline and priority order could both change if supply is limited, or new data or scientific discoveries come to light.