Starting With A Fitzsimons Veterans Home, Colorado Seniors Are Now Set To Receive Coronavirus Vaccinations

senior covid vaccine
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post, Pool
Registered nurse Ola Arije, left, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Army Veteran Phil Ross, 73, at Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons in Aurora, Colorado on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.

Standing outside on an unseasonably warm day in Aurora, family members watched through a window as two elderly men sat down in a room at the Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons. The observers were hopeful about what would happen next — the veterans were here to be vaccinated for the coronavirus.

These vaccinations, which will go to 100 residents at the veterans home, are among the first for Coloradans not associated with a hospital. Frontline health care workers received vaccinations as soon as the first vials arrived in Colorado. More residents and staff of assisted living facilities are expected to get vaccines in the coming weeks, as part of the first phase of the state rollout.

Just outside of the window of the Fitzsimons center on Tuesday, Maria Ross said she is happy the vaccine will give her 73-year-old husband Phil Ross and other residents more freedom. She has felt guilty even going out to get a cup of coffee at McDonald’s, knowing her husband wasn’t able to leave the veterans home.

It’s her hope that her husband’s vaccination inspires others to get the shots.

“If you are afraid, don't be, because if you are, then it'll stop everybody else from getting to that place that we need to be. And that is the place where we can all help one another and get rid of this terrible pandemic,” she said.

senior covid vaccine
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post, Pool
Army Veteran Phil Ross, 73, right, celebrates after administered a COVID-19 vaccine by registered nurse Ola Arije, left, at Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons in Aurora, Colo., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.

Eldercare facilities have been an epicenter of the virus in Colorado. Hundreds of people have died at the facilities, including 25 at Fitzsimons according to the state’s outbreak list. Another died who was thought to have coronavirus. Dozens more residents and staff have been sick with COVID-19 at various times since the pandemic began.

Mike Menard and Lila Phillips, two of Melvin Menard’s ten children, were also there to watch through a window as their 88-year-old father got his vaccine on Tuesday. The elder Menard served in Korea during the war. His children said they all missed the pre-COVID days where they could spend quality time with their dad at the veterans’ home. 

“We [were] here almost every day. We used to share meals with him in the cafeteria,” said Mike Menard.

Lila Phillips said her dad misses family the most.

“He can't see the grandkids or the great grandkids and he has a lot,” said Phillips.

The siblings said they couldn’t count the total number of grandkids and great grandkids but that their father has three great grandchildren who were born during the pandemic that he’s never met. He almost never got the chance: Melvin Menard actually had the coronavirus in April. He beat it.

Gov. Jared Polis was also at Fitzsimons to watch the first vaccinations through the window. He spoke with residents through a video screen. Polis said it was great that veterans who served the country could be among the first to receive vaccines. He also lamented that so many had died at the facility and at similar ones across the state.

Residents here are either veterans, veterans’ spouses or Gold Star parents. In the spring, a state official overseeing Fitzsimons told CPR News that the initial case in the facility was diagnosed in a resident from the center’s memory care unit, which houses veterans and their family members suffering from late-stage memory-related disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. 

“It’s difficult to get those folks to wear a mask or to social distance,” Perry May, deputy executive director of health facilities at the Colorado Department of Human Services, said.

senior covid vaccine
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post, Pool
Army Veteran Phil Ross, 73, left, and Korean war veteran Melvin Menard, 88, right received a COVID-19 vaccine at Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons in Aurora, Colo. on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.

People in elder care facilities are in the top priority group for vaccinations in Colorado. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended including seniors in long-term care facilities in the top group. Most facilities expect to receive their vaccines starting the week of Dec. 28. 

At some point in the late winter or early spring, other Coloradans over the age of 65 are expected to get access to the vaccines in the second phase of the state’s rollout, though they could come earlier for those over 75 years old. A CDC panel recently recommended that states should vaccinate those in the 75-plus age group in the first phase. 

Asked on Tuesday whether that would change the state’s current prioritizations, Polis didn’t rule out the possibility of making the change.

“We agree completely with the strategy of protecting the most vulnerable and, and those over 75 are at even greater risk than those 65,” Polis said. “We will be discussing that as we continue to update, but we do plan on aligning with the CDC.”

Polis said it would depend in part on how much of the vaccine the state receives.

Veterans hospitals have also started vaccinations across the country, including at the Grand Junction VA Medical Center.

Pool reporter David Mullen of the Denver Gazette contributed reporting.