Colorado lawmakers will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine for the 2021 lawmaking term that begins Wednesday, likely moving them ahead of hundreds of thousands of others in the state’s second inoculation phase.
House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, confirmed that members of the General Assembly are being prioritized. Legislators are expected to receive two doses of a vaccine by Feb. 16, when the lawmaking term is expected to begin in earnest, about two weeks before when the state is hoping to have vaccinated a majority of Coloradans who are 70 and older.
“I don’t think we are jumping the line,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday. “By no means are we taking vaccines taking away from others that absolutely need it more than us. But I think it’s important for the continuity of our state government that the legislature is able to meet as the constitution requires.”
Not all support the plan. Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, said he will refuse to get the vaccine ahead of others. Instead, he will wait for when he would have received the inoculation if he weren’t a lawmaker.
“I’m not going to cut in line in front of other people who are more at risk,” the 61-year-old said.
In late December, Gov. Jared Polis shuffled Colorado’s vaccine distribution plan to move state legislators and other essential government workers into Phase 1b, putting them behind front-line health care workers who interact with COVID-19 patients on a daily basis, as well as nursing home residents and staff.
The second phase now also includes Coloradans older than 70, teachers, health care workers with less direct contact with coronavirus patients, first responders, essential workers and some journalists. But state health officials have recommended that people over 70, first responders and health care workers get vaccinated before others in the 1b group. More than 1.3 million people, or nearly a quarter of the state’s population, are part of this phase.
“There are 100 legislators. There are a whole lot of people in Colorado that are over 70, so I think it’s … just simply it’s going to take a while to get through that population,” Fenberg said.
Colorado lawmakers plan to start the session this week but only meet for three days to handle a handful of bills before taking a prolonged recess to Feb. 16 when the bulk of the lawmaking is expected to resume. The hope is that coronavirus cases in Colorado will have decreased by then. The decision to take the recess was made before lawmakers were moved up in line to receive the vaccine.
Rep. Daneya Esgar, the House majority leader, said the schedule is based on advice from public health officials who are worried about rising case counts from New Year’s Eve celebrations and the holidays. “It was to give us that space and time to make sure our COVID numbers go down,” said Esgar, D-Pueblo.
House Republican leader Hugh McKean said he contacted his doctor to ask whether he should get the vaccine ahead of the session, given the potential for exposure in the Capitol. If it’s necessary, McKean said he “would rather the people who need it more than me take it.”
“My advice to my members has been that they need to consult with their physician and determine what their risk level is,” the Loveland lawmaker said Monday. “And if they want to take advantage of the vaccine or not, it’s really up to them.”
Sage Naumann, a spokesman for Republicans in the Colorado Senate, said the caucus was not consulted about making the vaccine available to lawmakers.
“The decision to be offered the vaccine was not our caucus’ choice, nor were we asked of our opinion before the decision was made,” he said in a written statement. “Our members have been encouraged to speak to their doctors and come to their own, private medical decision.”
The vaccine also is being offered early to credentialed journalists who regularly cover the Colorado legislature, including two Colorado Sun reporters.
Even if Colorado lawmakers are vaccinated this week, they likely won’t be able to fully benefit from the vaccine when they return Feb. 16.
That’s because the vaccines must be given in two doses several weeks apart. For the Pfizer vaccine, there is supposed to be a 21-day break between when someone receives their first and second doses. For the Moderna vaccine, 28 days is recommended between the two doses.
After the two doses are administered, it then takes several more weeks for the full power of the vaccine to kick in.
“It typically takes a few weeks for the body to build immunity (protection against the virus that causes COVID-19) after vaccination,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website. “That means it’s possible a person could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 just before or just after vaccination and still get sick. This is because the vaccine has not had enough time to provide protection.”
Fenberg said the session schedule is flexible, but Democratic leadership is unlikely to delay lawmaking even further to allow more time for lawmakers to build immunity against COVID-19. “This is about mitigating risk,” he said. “It’s not about eliminating risk.”
Even with the vaccine rollout, Fenberg added that there will continue to be public health protocols in place for the session’s start, including rapid testing, social-distancing and mask-wearing requirements at the Capitol. The requirements are expected to persist to help protect members of the public and staff in the building even after lawmakers are vaccinated.