All Coloradans 16 And Older Will Be Eligible For A COVID-19 Vaccine Beginning April 2

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Loaded syringes of COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination clinic at the National Western Complex in Denver on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. SCL Health partnered with dozens of community organizations including The Center for African American Health, The Senior Hub and The Center on Colfax, as well as the city and state, to create this pop-up clinic designed to get vaccinations into vulnerable seniors from underserved communities.

Updated 2:40 p.m.

Gov. Jared Polis said Monday the state will make vaccines available to everyone 16 and older by Friday, April 2, about two weeks sooner than expected.

“Everybody 16 and up will be eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, everybody 18 and up for the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Those are the ages that they're approved for by the FDA,” said Polis. “There are currently trials underway for 12 to 15. We're hopeful that that can occur before school gets back in the fall.

Colorado joins a wave of states doing the same. Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas are all expanding eligibility for the vaccine to all adults on Monday, according to the New York Times, with Minnesota joining that group Tuesday, and Indiana and South Carolina on Wednesday.

The governor said he wanted to continue to prioritize older Coloradans and those working in frontline positions dealing with the public, like restaurant workers, even as he expands eligibility significantly. Polis said the state would be “aggressively partnering” with restaurants “to make sure that we have the quantities needed for our frontline workers that will be done during this period.”

The expansion of vaccine eligibility comes as coronavirus is still a problem in Colorado.

The state has been regularly recording more than 1,000 new cases a day. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is easily manageable now, but the number has not fallen appreciably in several weeks.

Right now, 324 patients are hospitalized with the virus.

“What we're really watching is hospitalizations,” the governor said. “It's a very stubborn number. It's not going down much.”

Polis said that’s a key reason Coloradans should get the vaccine and also continue with public health measures like wearing a mask and avoiding large crowds, especially indoors.

“It's more important than ever before to wear masks, to avoid social gatherings,” he said. “But for people who are vaccinated, absolutely, they can start socializing more.”

He noted that being considered fully vaccinated won’t come until two weeks after someone’s final vaccine shot.

Driving the expansion is an infusion of new vaccine doses. Colorado National Guard Brig. Gen. Scott Sherman, who is heading up the vaccination effort, said the state was getting 422,000 doses this week. That’s many times more than just a few weeks back. And now the state has new one-shot doses, from Johnson and Johnson, in addition to those already coming from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna.

"I’m really excited," said Dr. Shauna Gulley, the chief clinical officer for Centura Health, which has been operating some of the state’s mass vaccination sites. “I think having the opportunity to take all willing participants to get a vaccine is a really important step for the state. It also indicates to us that the flow of vaccine supply from the federal government into the state of Colorado is increasing.”

The move comes as Colorado looks to speed up the pace of vaccinations, which first started for health care workers and older adults at the end of 2020. On March 19, the state opened up eligibility to include people 50 and older, restaurant workers, those with a pre-existing medical condition and higher education faculty.

And it happens with many factors changing all at once. Many states are opening up their economies, against the warnings it’s too soon from some public health experts. Last week, Colorado changed its COVID-19 Dial, easing restrictions on businesses like gyms and restaurants and also allowing counties to open up further if their case counts are low enough.

Wait times and equity continue to be issues for Colorado's vaccine program.

The announcement will provide some fresh challenges to ramp up the effort. On Sunday, some getting shots at a mass vaccination site at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park faced two-to-three-hour wait times after a scheduling glitch sent hundreds of people to the site at the same time rather than spacing out appointments.

Petra Storm, from Arvada, said she was “a little surprised," at the wait. "But it was fine. It's fine. It's worth it. Well worth the wait for me.”

Centura released a statement Monday saying that it had “discovered an error in our registration system that allowed an additional 400 Coloradans to register to receive the vaccine. We were not anticipating these additional patients but quickly pivoted to increase staffing and increase vaccine supply.” The statement said Centura honored all appointments, but the influx of patients created delays. The system said it has taken steps to ensure the problem will not happen in the future and it appreciated the patience of those who scheduled visits on Sunday. 

“As we press forward, our goal continues to be about a 15-minute experience for every individual that comes through any one of our sites in partnership with the state," Gulley said. "And we've given 35,000 vaccines collectively through these mass vaccination events at this point.”

UC Health, which held large-scale COVID-19 vaccination clinics earlier this year, said it is not planning to do any at this time. Spokesman Dan Weaver said its 11 clinics in the state have the capacity to do about 40,000 vaccinations a week and they plan to have the latest phase of vaccinations, 1B.4, completed by the end of this week. That phase includes people ages 50 and over, restaurant workers and those with a pre-existing medical condition. 

Weaver says once someone signs up on UCHealth’s system and becomes eligible, they’ll receive a call to schedule an appointment. He said the system had hired 100 more workers to administer vaccinations and those with appointments have not had to wait to get their shots. 

Weaver said in the last month or so, the number of vaccinations UC Health has received has ramped up significantly. The system has now administered more than 388,000 doses, 160 thousand of which have received both first and second doses. 

At Kaiser Permanente Colorado, infectious diseases specialist Dr. Amy Duckro said the health system was making its way quickly through the phases of people already eligible for the vaccine and would be ready to accommodate the general public in time for the governor’s announcement. 

Duckro said now that the vaccine supply has ramped up significantly, her biggest concern were people who weren’t signing up and having more supply than arms to inject.

“There are still a lot of people who are reluctant or hesitant to get vaccinated,” said Duckro. “Or, there are people who may think that their chance to get vaccinated is so far off that they have delayed signing up for any wait lists.”

Duckro urged people to get on Kaiser’s wait list, which is open to members as well as the general public. 

“We're working through this list very quickly, and we are looking at now reaching the end point, where we would actually be through our wait list,” said Duckro. “So we want to make sure that everyone has signed up as soon as possible.” 

Public health officials cautioned that newly eligible Coloradans should not expect to get vaccine appointments right away.

“There will probably be a mad rush at first (to get the shots) at first, which will be difficult to meet,” said Dr. Mark Johnson, the chief medical officer for Jefferson County’s public health department. “But in the longer run, I think it will decrease the current problems of trying to segregate groups by age and ‘value’ to society. Equity for underserved groups may still be a problem, but might be better served as well.”

Like much of the nation, the state has struggled to get vaccines to traditionally underserved communities. Latino residents make up almost 22 percent of Colorado's population, but have received just eight percent of the doses. Black residents are almost four percent of the population, but have received just 2.41 percent of the doses administered.

The expansion of eligibility to anyone 16 and older may help close those gaps, and Polis introduced a fleet of four mobile vaccination clinics housed in buses that will travel the state to take vaccines to neighborhoods that may not have ready access to health care.

The governor said they’re “pretty snazzy looking. You might see these on the roads. You can always honk your support.”