After the pandemic hit, the federal government provided a turbo-charged vaccine response. It spent $30 billion on COVID-19 vaccines. This enabled people to get shots in many convenient places for free. States like Colorado set up mass vaccine clinics in the parking lots of stadiums and fairgrounds.
But last year, that funding dried up. And without a new push in Congress, it looked to transition for shots to be made available on the commercial market.
The transition has left families, clinics, pharmacies and other providers scrambling to adjust to the new reality.
Denver mom Lauren Anderson contacted Colorado Public Radio last week because she was struggling to track down a Moderna shot for children under 5.
“State websites providing guidance on shot availability list two Walmart locations, both of which say they do not carry it. Pediatricians do not have recommendations of where to go,” she wrote. “Colorado Children’s Hospital does not do COVID shot clinics any longer, CDPHE (the state health department) is not responsive.”
'Spotty is my impression of it'
A spokesperson with Children’s Hospital Colorado said it’s not hosting any COVID-19 vaccine clinics currently. Nor does it have plans to at the moment.
She said the last one Children’s co-hosted was in partnership with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The spokesperson offered links about vaccine advice and conditions and symptoms and suggested contacting the agency.
A leader with the agency told CPR it had heard a few stories of families' challenges getting kids their shots.
“It could be due to some supply hiccups,” said Scott Bookman, senior director for Public Health Readiness and Response. “But I think if parents keep making some calls, they will get what they need.”
He noted that even during the pandemic, there were times when people had to wait a bit to get a COVID vaccine.
"Although those are offered through the commercial health care system now, I think slight delays are probably to be expected,” Bookman said.
“Spotty is my impression of it at a sort of national level,” said Dr. Shen Nagel, a pediatrician with Wheat Ridge clinic Pediatrics West. “I think it is probably very much clinic by clinic and practice by practice who has enough of it, who has it at all.”
Nagel said his clinic, which he described as a large mid-sized clinic serving 12,500 patients, like most, had to spend money upfront to get the vaccine shot. It now has ample supply.
“You have to, as with other vaccines, outlay for it and plan on being reimbursed properly, which supposedly we're supposed to be. So it's about 140 bucks per shot,” he said.
He said many clinics, especially small clinics, can’t come up with a hundred thousand dollars upfront to pay for COVID-19 vaccines for their patients.
Access troubles on the Western Slope too
The situation elsewhere in the state can also be considered spotty.
“This is our first year experiencing a privatized version of (vaccine distribution), so it's going to be more disjointed,” said Alli Howe, the communication manager of Mesa County Public Health.
She said on the Western Slope smaller clinics and pharmacies might not now offer COVID-19 shots for those under 12, but perhaps larger ones would.
She suggested going to the federal government website, vaccines.gov, where you can search by ZIP code.
A quick look Wednesday afternoon showed five Grand Junction locations with vaccines for kids in stock, but each showed five or fewer shots available. The same website showed dozens of locations in the Denver area with double-digit numbers of doses in stock. The site advises people to “check appointment availability.”
The website shows shots available at many locations in other large metro areas like Colorado Springs and Pueblo, but clearly not in the same numbers as the areas around Denver.
Howe said the best advice is for families to be patient and persistent.
“It is tricky, and it changes based on that availability,” said Howe. “It is hard for parents this year. Absolutely.”
Tips on finding a vaccine in a post-public health emergency world
With the end of the public health emergency, states are no longer receiving what essentially was an unlimited supply of COVID vaccines at no cost, Bookman said. While there are some small federal programs for those who are uninsured and underinsured, “COVID vaccines are now treated like all other vaccines on the commercial market.”
Lauren Anderson, the parent who reached out to CPR, told us via email that her situation did improve, but it took a few days.
“My pediatrician notified patients that children under 5 can now mix-and-match COVID boosters, so it appears the issue may have been resolved,” Anderson wrote. “My kids were not able to get a booster at any other point during the year but as of this morning, they are available.”
A state health department spokesperson suggested families contact local pharmacies. Coloradans can also ask their regular health care provider, or local public health agency if they have updated 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccines.
Additionally, a Colorado law called Individual Access to Publicly Funded Vaccines aims to help people get the COVID-19 vaccine even if they don’t have health insurance or are underinsured.
- Vaccines for Children providers have low- and no-cost vaccines for uninsured, underinsured, Medicaid-eligible, or Alaskan Native/American Indian children aged 18 years and younger. Children who are underinsured can get low- and no-cost vaccines at their local public health agency, federally qualified health center, rural health center, or Indian Health Services clinic, according to the state health department.
- Bridge Access Program providers have low- and no-cost updated COVID-19 vaccines for uninsured and underinsured adults aged 18 years and older. The agency said that includes most local public health agencies, federally qualified health centers, rural health centers, and safety net clinics, as well as Walgreens and CVS pharmacy locations across the state.
According to the CDPHE spokesperson, the state also has a limited vaccine supply for equity clinics specifically designed to serve uninsured, underinsured, and underserved communities and areas of the state that tend to have less access to vaccines through traditional health care providers.
If you’re still struggling to find a shot, “Please just keep trying!” Bookman said. He described the vaccines as vital to a safe and healthy winter.
“We are confident that supply and access will continue to improve with time.”
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