Polis Says Colorado Is Ready To Give COVID Booster Shots, Even As Some Roadblocks And Questions Remain

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A container of syringes filled with Moderna vaccine at a COVID 19 vaccination clinic in Aurora on Friday, May 14, 2021.

As global debate continues over the need for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, or the fairness of administering them while some nations still scramble for first doses, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis waded in to say two federal vaccine experts who question the value of the boosters, “have blood on their hands,” while promising that the state would be ready if and when the boosters are approved.

Polis said he is preparing as though the Federal Food and Drug Administration will approve the booster shots for individuals who received their first two doses of Pfizer vaccine as soon as next week. If that happens, approval for booster doses from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson might follow in coming weeks.

No matter the timeline, Polis said he was lining up the state’s National Guard to once again deliver vaccines to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

“Especially for older Coloradans and those with pre-existing conditions, this is very, very important news and we plan to be among the leading states in rolling out the highly effective new booster,” Polis said.

The rollout plan for a third shot could change pending FDA approval

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee is set to meet virtually Friday morning to discuss Pfizer’s application to start providing third doses to those who received the first two from that company.

Should that plan gain full approval, Polis said the state would forgo the kind of mass vaccination sites that were used in the late winter and spring. Instead, the state will rely on medium-sized providers like pharmacies and health care facilities. 

Polis said he expects it may be harder for residents to get the third shot in the initial rush, and there could be some regional pressures and delays but those should improve over time.

“Colorado has the resources, the infrastructure, the plan to continue to offer the vaccination to those who are unvaccinated, while also offering boosters to those who want it, very aggressively,” Polis said.

White House officials last month announced plans to offer booster shots to fully vaccinated people starting in September. Some large systems, like UCHealth, began scheduling appointments for patients who are 70 and older if they’d finished their initial vaccination series at least six months ago.

“We've had 2.4 percent of Coloradans already get their third dose,” Polis said. “But we can't begin the large-scale preparations until the data (is released by the federal government) Sept. 20. We hope obviously that date holds. That is the current plan.”

Some scientists are questioning the value of a booster

Two leading FDA scientists recently resigned from the agency in apparent disagreement with the plan to rush the boosters into arms. They joined other vaccine experts Monday in publishing an opinion piece in the medical journal The Lancet arguing that a booster decision needs to be made based on science, not politics.

“Careful and public scrutiny of the evolving data will be needed to assure that decisions about boosting are informed by reliable science more than by politics,” wrote Drs. Philip Krause and Marion Gruber, among others. “Even if boosting were eventually shown to decrease the medium-term risk of serious disease, current vaccine supplies could save more lives if used in previously unvaccinated populations than if used as boosters in vaccinated populations.”

Polis lashed out at Krause and Gruber for slowing the booster plan, saying “they have blood on their hands, and there are thousands of Americans that are dead today because of their delays of the booster shot.” He said studies had shown the efficacy of the immune response from the booster, especially for those in their 80s and 90s and the immunosuppressed.

“If the booster shot had been administered a month or two ago, the number of deaths in the U.S. would be much lower,” he said. He argued that research showing it boosts antibodies in the elderly and immunocompromised populations indicates that deaths would have been reduced.

Officials are prepared to aggressively deliver vaccine doses

Lt. Col. Jamie Pieper with the Colorado National Guard, Senior Advisor for COVID-19 Vaccination, said the state is planning for an aggressive effort. She said Colorado is planning to deliver some 645,000 doses a week, which is above what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the demand will be in Colorado.

She said the agency estimates 75 percent of the eligible population would want the booster but Colorado is ready to deliver more than that percentage. Fewer than 70 percent of those eligible have received both doses of Pfizer or Moderna now, or a single dose of Johnson and Johnson months after they became available. The state has had to try cash giveaways and vaccine mandates during a long, summer slog to get more people inoculated. 

“We're being more aggressive than that 75 percent. We believe more Coloradans will want to get the booster. And so we've utilized the most aggressive planning scenario,” Pieper said.

“Our initial vaccine plan focused on protecting our most vulnerable populations like our seniors and our booster plan will follow a similar goal of saving the most lives. The state is currently working with our long-term care facilities to ensure that we can provide boosters to our most vulnerable,” Pieper said.

Polis said Coloradans are already able to get boosters, especially if they are seniors or immunocompromised, from a pharmacy or doctor.

“If you have a weak immune system, are older and have a weak immune system, you simply say that and you can get it. There's plenty of openings right now to get that booster, especially if you've got Pfizer,” Polis said.

In mid-August, the state advised vaccination providers to offer third doses to immunocompromised residents. To break down barriers to immunocompromised Coloradans getting their third dose, the state has urged them to self-report their conditions, including simply stating they have a weak immune system due to age and preexisting conditions. 

Polis dishes a compliment to Trump and Operation Warp Speed

Polis closed Monday’s update with a poke at the administration of fellow Democrat, President Joe Biden.  

“There's a lot that President Trump got wrong about the pandemic, but there's also something very important he got right. And what he got right about the pandemic was Operation Warp Speed,” Polis said, referring to the former president's the original vaccination development effort.

“The FDA would have sat on and delayed the lifesaving vaccine for many more months at the cost of tens or hundreds of thousands of American lives had (Trump) not acted to reduce the bureaucracy and paperwork and make the life saving vaccine available quicker, including ordering it before it was even approved and making preparations to administer to the American people,” Polis said.

He said similar leadership is now needed from the Biden administration “to make sure that the FDA does not succeed in using ivory tower circular reasoning to further delay the life-saving booster or, assuming the data is strong when it's presented by Pfizer, the availability of the vaccine for those that are aged five to 11.”

The FDA is expected to weigh in on the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer shot for children 5-11 in the weeks ahead.

Biden is expected in Colorado on Tuesday.