‘We’re Almost There’: Polis Expects 1st COVID-19 Vaccine Doses As Soon As Next Week

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Gov. Jared Polis holds a press conference on COVID-19 at the Governor’s Mansion in Capitol Hill. Nov. 17, 2020.

At-risk Coloradans might get the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as next week.

In an interview with Colorado Matters on Friday, Gov. Jared Polis said the Pfizer vaccine would be made available first, followed a few weeks later by the Moderna vaccine. Both vaccines require two doses with 30 days in between.

"We are only hopefully a week away from the first highly effective vaccine arriving at our state," he said. "And I would encourage anybody just to look at the data on the efficacy of this vaccine — 90 percent, 94 percent, there’s two of them."

"We’re excited, double down, wear masks, avoid others," Polis exclaimed. "We’re almost there."

Inpatient healthcare workers are expected to be first in line for the vaccine, followed closely by those who work in assisted living facilities and with home health agencies, then residents of nursing homes and other high-risk residents of congregate living facilities. Colorado will likely finalize its order of distribution next week.

The governor also clarified previous comments about incarcerated people receiving vaccines. He said that prisoners who are in the at-risk populations will be vaccinated at the same time as their non-incarcerated cohort. However, he refused to answer questions about whether prisoners were already a high-risk population overall given their inability to social distance.

Interview Highlights 

On holiday guidance:

"We’re going to learn a lot from Thanksgiving … I hope people avoided mixing the households over Thanksgiving, especially for anyone seeing their elderly relatives. We’ll really see over the next week exactly what that looks like, and that’ll help inform the Christmas guidance for folks."

On prisoners and vaccines:

"Nobody will be denied a vaccination simply because they are in prison or incarcerated. And so too, nobody will be given one preferentially because they’re incarcerated. It will be done based on who is at-risk. The elderly at-risk, people with pre-existing conditions, whether they’re in nursing homes, whether they’re living in their own home, whether they’re incarcerated, it’s really critical to and depends on the overrun of our hospitals to focus on providing immunity for those who have a much higher hospitalization risk."

Interview Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been steadily climbing in Colorado to their highest numbers of the pandemic. Deaths from the virus are averaging more than 200 a week here for the first time since April. Meanwhile, lawmakers met this week in special session to help Coloradans who need financial life support. These are topics we'll broach with Colorado's Governor Jared Polis. We'll also talk about how vaccines will roll out in the state.

Governor. Welcome back.

Gov. Jared Polis: Always a pleasure, Ryan.

RW: You checked in with us last weekend just after your COVID-19 diagnosis. And at the time you told us you and the first gentleman were asymptomatic, has that changed?

JP: I think we're hopefully mostly through the woods. You know, I think we had mild symptoms. I mean, I've had trouble sleeping and Marlon had headaches for a couple of days, but I think we're through it. I mean, this is such a weird virus, Ryan, it can put you on death's doorstep. I had a friend that caught it, was hospitalized two days later, on a vent a day later and died two days after that. And other people have no symptoms or mild symptoms. So the odds were with us. I mean, for people that are in their forties, it's about a 5 percent, 4 to 5 percent hospitalization, but that's still pretty scary. You can be perfectly healthy and then, boom, one in 20 people are hospitalized a week later. But so far I could report that it looks like Marlon and I are in the 95 percent.

RW: Having those mild symptoms. When you tested positive, Governor, did you enter that into the smartphone contact tracing app?

JP: I did, yeah. So if anybody was exposed to my phone without an ID, they would get the idea. I encourage everybody to turn on their smartphone and notifications. It's under settings and notifications, and you can very simply expose your notifications, just simply turn that on. And I got a code that I entered to activate that when I was diagnosed.

RW: And you remain in quarantine. Are we going to see any counties move to purple status, the strictest phase of the state's dial, the equivalent of a local stay-at-home order, anytime soon?

JP: Well, I sure hope not, Ryan. What that is designed to do is really make sure that we do not overwhelm our hospitals, which means that there would no longer be a bed, not just for COVID, but a heart attack, a stroke, appendicitis, whatever you need. We are not out of room right now, but it is very strained, very strained, some systems more than others, some parts of our state, more than others. We've been working with the hospitals around additional capacity. They have additional capacity since March, thank goodness, to serve people. We also have a little bit of room at the alternative care sites, which we monitor the information in real time and we stand by ready to trigger if needed.

RW: Okay. So no county is imminently going to purple. And it doesn't sound like those alternative care sites, which range from the convention center to other sites across the state, those are on standby, but you don't anticipate those opening immediately?

JP: That would be before any type of purple or anything like that. So the two that would be first would be Westminster and Pueblo, they're two smaller sites. And we monitor the hospitalizations really daily, even hourly, to see if that's needed. And right now I think what the biggest threat is, and we simply don't know yet, Ryan, is what people did over Thanksgiving. And will that lead to another surge that would necessitate the activation of those sites.

RW: Will the state's guidance, speaking of Thanksgiving, will the state's guidance for the December holidays mirror what you said around turkey day?

JP: We're going to learn a lot from Thanksgiving. So really, frankly, starting today actually, you should see the first test results in cases. I hope, I hope Ryan, that people avoided mixing households over Thanksgiving, especially if they went to see their elderly relatives. We'll really see over the next week exactly what that looks like. And that'll help inform the Christmas guidance for folks.

RW: Okay. And you expect to see the early signs of that today, the tail of Thanksgiving —

JP: Starting today. We'll start seeing some of the very first cases from people's Thanksgivings today. But I would say, let's give it three to five days to really form any conclusions on what Thanksgiving looked like. What's most important for folks to realize is, this is just the most prevalent in the entire country that coronavirus has ever been. So if you've ever worn a mask, wear one now and wear it properly, right? It's not a decoration you adorn yourself. It's a tool, it's clothing. Just like you wear your shoes properly, wear your mask properly. Avoid socializing with people outside of your household and try to stay six feet away whenever possible.

RW: And that was very similar to the Thanksgiving guidance. As people traveled for Thanksgiving, there were anecdotes, Governor, from travelers at DIA of crowding, a lack of social distancing. Is Denver international Airport safe?

JP: Well, it's reasonably safe if you take the precautions you need to, if you have to travel. So I believe what I saw was that Thanksgiving traffic was about half, a little bit less than half of what it normally was. I don't have the exact figure in front of me, but I read an article. So that means that, of course, it wasn't what it usually is, but that's still a heck of a lot of people, Ryan. And so just like in any crowd, I mean, travel's not inherently different than the grocery store or work.

Wear a mask, avoid others and keep a distance. I think the airlines have been very responsible with actually what occurs on the planes. What hurts the DIA? From the pictures I've seen and the anecdotes that's even a little bit more worrisome. So if you are going to DIA and are traveling, just get in, get out, wear your mask, wear the highest quality mask you have. If you have surgical, if you have K95, that's a good time to wear it. They're far more effective than just cloth.

RW: Late last month, metro mayors signed a letter to your administration, dealing with their concerns over poor communication from the state, a lack of coordination when it comes to COVID restrictions. Some of these metro mayors told our investigative reporter, Ben Marcus, that they were tired of being surprised, Governor. How are we, what, nine months into a pandemic and still seeing these fundamental issues?

JP: Well, we had a good Zoom call with the mayors, I think it was yesterday, the day before. I'm tired of being surprised too. I'm sure you are as well, Ryan. None of us want to be surprised by cases going up, but the truth is we are going to look at the actual data in real time. And that sometimes means adjusting course, not fun for us. I'm sure it's not fun for mayors. It's not fun for residents. But of course we're not going to bake in something that is inflexible. We're going to look at real time data and, yes, the real time data surprises us. I think it's really just tragic how there's been this national surge over the last month or two. We were able to successfully tamper down the small summer surge. It was in July. We had a very good August and September, low rates, but then, boom, nationally and particularly in the middle of our country and the upper Midwest, and we're on the periphery of that, enormous spikes in cases just over the last month and a half.

RW: And so you think surprises are baked in to the process. Do I hear you telling Metro mayors they're —

JP: I'd much rather there's no surprises, Ryan, obviously, who wouldn't. I imagine that cases are stable and down and there's no surprises. We're not surprised, the mayors aren't surprised and businesses aren't surprised. I mean, that would be a wonderful thing, if there are no more surprises.

RW: The special session of the state legislature which you called, ended in the middle of the week and committed $342 million to COVID relief. When will we start to see that aid roll out? Like who benefits first, earliest?

JP: I was so proud of the Democrats and Republicans in our state legislature, really coming together in Colorado's time of need with the resources we have. And we know that we don't have the same ability the federal government does and we can get into later what the federal government should be doing, has a moral urgency to do. Right now, some of this is already in people's hands. That's the $375 that predates the special session that went out to everybody who experienced, almost everybody, who experienced unemployment during this crisis, one-time payment. People didn't have to do anything. A lot of your listeners should have it in their accounts already. If they haven't, it should be there in the next few days if they're among the over 400,000 people who are eligible.

The other thing, to help restaurants, and we all sympathize with our neighborhood restaurants, institutions that are not just an important part of our economy, wages for workers, but also culturally important. They are able to keep up to $2,000 of the sales tax revenue they actually already collected last month. So it's already in their bank account. They held it in custody for the state. They would have had to pay the state next week. And it is forgiven, they're able to keep that, up to $2,000, as well as up to $2,000 a month going forward from sales tax revenue. There are others that roll on over the next few weeks and months, like rental assistance for people, electricity bill assistance so people don't lose their light and their heat in the middle of winter, help for childcare. So those are all in the coming weeks.

RW: How will that affect next year's budget, particularly the sales tax stuff?

JP: These are all budgeted for as one-time expenditures, which they are. We identify them as necessary items for stimulus in approximately $1.2 billion stimulus package that we presented in our budget. Now this is about 340 million, I think, on the bulk of the stimulus. Rightly so, the joint budget committee to legislature would like to see subsequent forecasts to make sure that that additional one-time stimulus money is there, and then figure out the best way to allocate that. But I also want to point out that whatever the state can do, doesn't go nearly far enough to help our small businesses. It's not as big or even close to as big as PPP, as the direct payments people got as unemployment insurance, all these things that we really relied on Democrats and Republicans in Washington to get together and do.

RW: That sounds like a call to action, Gov. Polis, to Congress.

JP: It's urgent. I've just been so pleased. And hopefully, the last few days there's been a little movement, but they need to get it done. I hope that Republicans, the Democrats in Congress looked at Colorado as a model, to our legislature as a model. Did everybody get exactly what they wanted? Of course not. But fundamentally Democrats/Republicans worked together, got $340 million out the door. Look, unemployment expires for a lot of people. It has expired for some, it expires for some in three weeks. So we need the federal government to continue that. We need some help for the businesses that are affected, whether it's another paycheck protection program or whether it's directed help for those that are the most impacted.

We in Colorado have provided this bridge thanks to the good graces of the legislature: help for restaurants, bars, individuals, renters, but it is simply a bridge. And we need the federal government to come through to help reduce the severity and duration of the recession.

RW: All right, Gov. Jared Polis is our guest. Stay on the line. We're going to pick our conversation up after a break. Lots of questions from our audience about how a vaccine would roll out in Colorado. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.


It's Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. And let's get back to my live discussion with Gov. Jared Polis. I want to talk about the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine or several, because of course, we know that there are several in the works. Lots of questions from our audience about this, Governor. Based on a plan Colorado submitted to the CDC, healthcare workers, first responders, nursing home residents will be first in line. Do you envision having a vaccine czar who would oversee the rollout?

JP: Well, first of all, thank goodness for the triumph of modern science, Ryan. We are only hopefully a week away from the first highly effective vaccine arriving at our state. And I would encourage anybody just to look at the data on the efficacy of this vaccine, 90 percent, 94 percent. There's two of them. And there's additional evidence. This is not enough to be conclusive yet, but even those who contract it get mild cases if you've been vaccinated. And that's nothing unusual, that happens with a flu vaccine too. So very effective, it will end the pandemic coming next week. We're excited, double down, wear masks, avoid others. We're almost there, Ryan, we're almost there. And yes, those very first doses will be available for the people who work in COVID wards and are exposed to people every day, and then, of course, our most vulnerable population.

RW: All right. Within a week, which vaccine is that, is that the Pfizer, Moderna? What is it?

JP: The Pfizer's the first one that we expect, followed within a few weeks by the Moderna vaccine. And these are both two dose vaccines. There might be some protection conferred with the first dose, but that is not documented, and this is very important that people know, it's not like they can get the shot and then go out. You get one shot, 30 days later, you get another, and then two weeks later you are fully or 94 percent immune. That is about 45 days from the first shot. It's possible there is some immunity that occurs earlier.

JP: You asked about a czar. We are involving the National Guard Command Structure. We're involving our Emergency Command Center, regional representatives, Rick Palacio from the governor's office. So we had a emergency team that is overseeing this to make sure that it's in peoples' arms as quickly as possible and done in a safe way.

RW: I'd like to quote from Dr. Brittani Monet James of the Institute for Antiracism in Medicine and the University of Illinois College of Medicine. She wrote on Twitter, "Many black people will refuse to take this COVID vaccine because most of us don't trust that white people or the government mean us any good." She says, "Vaccine messaging has to come from other black people and not just doctors, but church leaders, for example." In September, you let the COVID 19 Health Equity Response Team sunset. Will that hurt vaccine rollout in communities of color?

JP: I agree with that doctor. I haven't read her words, but absolutely we are engaging community leaders in communities of color to model and talk about the need for the vaccination. So we fully expect that that will involve faith leaders, community leaders, elected leaders, and others, really. And I hope that her prediction is wrong when she says flat out that black people won't get it. There are many that are eager to get it, of course, as well. But I think modeling the behavior from within the community, having role models that show that, yes, this is science, folks. This is not white man science or rich man science. It is science, the integrity of the scientific process that Pfizer and Moderna have followed. Tens of thousands of people who tested it, including people of color, people of different ages, all demonstrating that this will save lives and end the pandemic.

RW: Was it a mistake to sunset that Health Equity Response Team?

JP: Oh, well, they issued their recommendations to us, which we have worked on implementing. And we have some that we've implemented and others that we're in the process of implementing. With regard to the vaccine, the important thing is having those trusted community voices in each community. And by the way, it's in communities of color, but also in rural communities and communities that might have different political persuasions. Very important for role models to step up and show the importance of ending the pandemic by getting inoculated.

RW: I'd like to focus on vaccinating people who are incarcerated. Katie Blakey has this question.

Katie Blakey: You've said that incarcerated people will be last to get the COVID vaccine. You later clarified that vulnerable people who are incarcerated will get vaccinated at the same time as other vulnerable people. Since people in prisons, vulnerable or not, cannot physically distance and don't have the same access to hygiene practices that non incarcerated people do, shouldn't they all be early to get vaccinated, at risk or not, especially considering most of Colorado's largest outbreaks have been at prisons? Thanks.

RW: How do you respond, and really help us understand your position here?

JP: Yeah, well, of course, we respect the dignity of every human life, and really, I think where it becomes difficult is government shouldn't be making these normative judgements, which we're avoiding making generally by focusing on the most vulnerable. So as I've said, nobody will be denied a vaccination simply because they are in prison or incarcerated. And so too, nobody will be given one preferentially because they're incarcerated. It will be done based on who is at risk: the elderly at risk, people with pre-existing conditions, whether they're in nursing homes, whether they're living in their own home, whether they're incarcerated. It's really critical to end the pandemic, [inaudible 00:17:43] the overrun of our hospitals, to focus on providing immunity for those have much higher hospitalization risk.

And just to put this in perspective, Ryan, people in their seventies and eighties have as much as a one in four chance of being hospitalized when they contract COVID. People my age, I think I can include you in that Ryan, you're about my age, have about a one in 20 chance of being hospitalized. People in their twenties have as little as a one in a hundred chance of being hospitalized, and then of course kids even less than that. So if we're focused on not overwhelming our hospitals, we really need to focus on who would most likely, not only need to be hospitalized, but frankly, who could also be at a greater risk of death.

RW: But we know that the cases have been rampant in Colorado's prisons. We know that social distancing, as Katie Blakey has reflected there, is difficult. And it seems that you are contradicting some of your own administration's guidance when you said that there's no way that prisoners are going to get this before members of a vulnerable population. Because actually, the framework that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment published, put those who are incarcerated just behind critical workforce and highest risk individuals, just because of their vulnerability. So which is it?

JP: Yeah, you'll see that we will align with the CDC and science, in Colorado, to prioritize protecting the most vulnerable. I think that very likely every state will. But there's really just a word that came from CDC in the last week that will be a part of our plan, which will be our prioritization plan, which will be filed with CDC I expect either today or Monday, really in the next few days, just to have the vaccine. And it will reflect the very best science to save lives in the pandemic.

RW: Did you misspeak when you said there's no way prisoners are going to get this before members of a vulnerable population?

JP: Well, I think what I also said in that same quote, Ryan, is that if there are prisoners, or it might not have been the same quote, but it was quoted in the same article, that of course, prisoners are who vulnerable will not be denied it simply because they're prisoners. They'll get it just like other members of vulnerable populations. Goal is to save lives. Prevent the hospitals from being overrun. There are people that are 72 in prison, and there's a heck of a lot more people that are 72 that are not in prison, but they are at much greater risk of this virus, and of course they will be prioritized for immunization.

RW: Just to be very clear. You're saying that the prioritization will be based on their general vulnerability, not whether they are incarcerated or not?

JP: No one will be discriminated against simply because they are in custody or in a prison. If you take up a hospital bed, we value your life. Really, frankly, the life of every Coloradan is our concern and making sure that we adhere to the CDC guidance, the science-based guidance and prioritize those who are most vulnerable for immediate protection.

RW: Do you agree that those who can not physically distance in a prison setting are necessarily more vulnerable? That's really one question that a lot of our listeners through Twitter, were curious to have you reflect on.

JP: Well, it's wherever you live. If you are 25 years old, you have a, roughly, one in a hundred chance of being hospitalized. If you're 72 years old, you have a one in four chance of being hospitalized. Now you can also factor in pre-existing conditions of people of different ages. But what people sometimes don't recognize, Ryan, is age itself, even without any preexisting condition has a totally different trajectory on this virus. That's why my parents who are 76 have been staying at home. The only time my mom has gone out is to the dentist for work she needed to do.

We haven't even been able to see them in nine months because we didn't want to put them at risk. Because take two people, one in four chance of hospitalization, that means there's a 50/50 chance if my parents get it, one of them is going to wind up in the hospital. And so very different risk criteria for people in their twenties and thirties, forties and fifties where, as I said, it's about 5 percent or one in 20. And then, of course, people in their seventies and eighties.

RW: All right, Governor, thanks so much. That's all the time we have. I appreciate your time and continued good health in light of the diagnosis for you and the first gentleman, and your family.

JP: Thank you for all of the kind thoughts that have come in on social media and email wishing us a speedy recovery. And I want to wish everybody in Colorado who has COVID a speedy recovery, and anyone who has a loved one who has struggling with COVID, a speedy recovery.

RW: This is CPR News.