With Plenty Of COVID Vaccines In Stock, Colorado’s New Focus Is On Younger Residents

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Pharmacy clinical manager Dr. Suzanne May pushes a sodium chloride solution into a vial of COVID-19 vaccine at left, at North Suburban Medical Center in Thornton, Dec. 17, 2020. The vaccine in the vials come in a concentrated form. May estimates that there are seven doses per vial once diluted.

Looking to expand vaccinations to younger residents, the state is shifting its strategy to prioritize getting shots in arms over preserving doses. 

For months, when supply was tight, the vaccine effort aimed to make sure all doses were used. But now supply is ample and the push is to get shots out far and wide to anyone who is eligible and wants one.

At an update with reporters on Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis said the shift made sense as Colorado is moving “out of the sprint of vaccinating those who are at greatest risk into the marathon of vaccinating those who've been waiting for it to be convenient.”

To that end, Colorado wants more primary care providers, like pediatricians, to give shots. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance to convince more doctors to stock vaccine doses. Polis said the aim is to assure them that wasting some doses is okay if it helps inoculate more patients quickly.

“We want to make sure that even if there's only one patient on hand to receive a vaccine, that the vial is punctured and that vaccine is given,” Polis said. “Now we are more concerned with finding and getting it to the remaining people who are unvaccinated and that's okay if a dose isn't used in the 72 hours” that has been recommended.

Polis said it’s okay if a vial is punctured for one patient because “at this point it is inexcusable to deny somebody the vaccination simply because we don't have enough people lined up for every dose in the vial.” 

That message comes as Colorado and much of the nation have reached a point where there is more available vaccine than willing subjects. The Pfizer vaccine was recently approved for those older than 12 and vaccinations for those older than six could open up this fall. Now parents around the state are looking to get tweens and teens vaccinated and many will be turning to their pediatricians.

So far 11 percent of Coloradans ages 12 to 15 have gotten a shot, after first becoming eligible last week. But, the governor said, that also means 89 percent of that group haven't yet been vaccinated.

“So we have to keep up the pace,” he said.

Primary care doctors have shied away from providing vaccines

But up to now, primary care and pediatric clinics haven’t been a primary location for vaccination, as the shots have gone out through bigger places, like hospitals, drive-up clinics and mass vaccination sites. That’s in part because those physicians have been afraid of not using all of the vaccine doses, which is something federal and state health departments also prioritized.

The shift underscores a new push for the providers who are closest to patients to take a larger role in vaccinating them.

“Primary care providers are very important and trusted sources of information,” said Polis as he called upon pediatricians, family practices and private practices to make sure that they offer the vaccine to their patients when they come in for regular checkups or for any other type of issue.

After the pandemic hit, pediatric clinics reported seeing a drop in a variety of visits, including of families coming in to get routine childhood immunizations. Now doctors are urging families to get those shots along with the COVID-19 vaccine for those older than 12. 

A pediatrician who joined the governor’s update Thursday said the nation’s preeminent group for doctors who treat children, the American Academy of Pediatrics, put out a statement of support for routine immunizations to be given at the same time or around the same time as the COVID-19 vaccines.

“I do urge families to get their children caught up or to get the vaccines that are due,” said Dr. Suchitra Rao, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Polis and experts stress that vaccine is safe

At the update, Polis and three physicians in lab coats, including the state’s chief medical officer and the state epidemiologist, all spoke to the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, clearly with anxious and perhaps confused parents in mind.

Rao said it was understandable that parents would have many questions, but “unfortunately misinformation and myths can spread more easily than the facts,” she said. “I recommend that families turn to their trusted sources of information, as pediatricians, as well as other primary care providers who know a lot about how vaccines work and about vaccine safety.”

She said the vaccines can do a lot of good.

“It's something that can help make life safer for you as a family and for your community at large,” she said. 

The update included state data showing that vaccinations are having a noticeable impact on the growth of cases and hospitalizations.

One sign is that Colorado continues to see more younger than older people hospitalized with COVID-19. Polis said two thirds of those older than 30 have gotten at least one dose, while it's less than half for those 16 to 29.

“That's the reason we're seeing more young people in our hospitals is because less are vaccinated,” Polis said. “People of all ages, if you haven't found the time to get vaccinated yet, please do so.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said data in Colorado show the vaccine is protecting all ages - even those younger than 12 who can't get shots yet. She said the state is seeing a decline in some infection rates among younger children, because even though they haven’t been vaccinated, more of the adults in their lives have been, preventing the spread of the virus through a household.

“We believe that that is probably indirect protection that is coming from parents and other adults that are around those children being vaccinated,” Herlihy said. 

Herlihy said the goal is to get to a place where those who aren’t yet vaccinated get protection because others in their community are vaccinated at a sufficiently high level.