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Colorado is about to change its coronavirus vaccine priority list — again

People between the ages of 65 and 69 could receive the vaccine sooner under the changes

Registered Nurse Joe Pumo administers COVID-19 shots to all critical staff at the Kaiser Permanente Lone Tree Medical Offices. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said Tuesday that the state will soon announce more changes to its priority list for the coronavirus vaccine, with people between the ages of 65 and 69 and possibly others being moved up.

The changes are in response to new guidance from the federal government, which will also recommend giving greater priority to adults of any age with serious underlying medical conditions.

At a Tuesday news conference, Polis said the state will “of course” adopt the new federal guidance. Polis said those ages 65 to 69 will likely become eligible in a couple weeks to receive the vaccine. Polis’ office later announced that the state will release a new priority list next week and sounded a more cautious note on the timing for when the new priority group would become eligible.

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But Polis also said the state doesn’t want the new group to leapfrog ahead of seniors age 70 and over.

“We do want to prioritize those who are most vulnerable.” Polis said. “And there is a difference between a 60-year-old, a 70-year-old, an 80-year-old. … We don’t want to squeeze out an 82-year-old for a 66-year-old.”

Another complicating factor is that the federal government plans to change how vaccine doses are allocated to the states. Currently, they are distributed based solely on population. Representing roughly 1.7% of the U.S. population, Colorado is currently receiving 1.7% of the vaccine supply — around 70,000 doses per week to be used as first doses.

But at a Tuesday press briefing, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said, starting in two weeks, doses will be allocated based on a state’s population of people 65 and older. The pace at which people are being vaccinated in the state will also be taken into consideration.

The new allocation method “gives states a strong incentive to ensure doses are going to work, protecting people rather than sitting on shelves or in freezers,” Azar said.

It is unclear what this will mean for Colorado’s supply of vaccine. Colorado ranks in the middle of states for the number of people age 65 and older. But Colorado has one of the smallest populations of seniors as a percentage of the total population. Meanwhile, Polis has repeatedly touted Colorado as being among the leading states for the percentage of vaccines that have been administered

After a Tuesday afternoon phone call with federal officials, Polis’ office released a statement noting that Colorado “will not be making any changes to our vaccine program until we can get concrete details on supply quantities, timelines for receiving that supply and engaging our partners who are on the ground administering the vaccine.” Nonetheless, the statement said the Polis administration is “actively planning how we can scale up and expand eligibility in anticipation for receiving more supply of vaccines. “

The changes could further top-load the state’s priority structure. Almost every place in Colorado has finished vaccinating their high-priority health care workers — designated Phase 1a in the state’s current plan — and moved onto the next group, Phase 1b.

Phase 1b — which contains an estimated 1.3 million people — is currently split into two halves. The top half of Phase 1b includes first responders and all adults over 70 years old. The bottom half includes frontline essential workers such as teachers and grocery employees.

People ages 60 to 69 and adults of any age with underlying medical conditions are currently included in Phase 2 of the state’s plan, which is scheduled to start in spring.

According to estimates from the State Demography Office, there are approximately 288,000 people in Colorado ages 65 to 69. It is unclear how many Coloradans would be considered to have underlying medical conditions that qualify them for higher priority, but an earlier draft of the state’s vaccination plan suggests it could be as many as 1.5 million people.

Polis did not answer a question about whether the new priority structure will bump teachers and other essential workers further down the list.

Federal officials also announced Tuesday that they will begin delivering all available doses of vaccine to the states, rather than hold some back to cover the necessary booster shots needed for the current vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna. The federal government intends to rely on increases in production to make sure enough doses are produced on time for the booster shots.

Polis has said he would welcome that change, and Colorado hospital leaders said they are ramping up their ability to deliver the vaccine.

“The limiting factor right now is the supply of vaccines coming into the system,” said Peter Banko, the president and CEO of Centura Health, which expects to be able to vaccinate more than 22,000 people per week by the end of February.

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