Barbara Allen wanted a coronavirus vaccine. She just couldn’t find a place to get one.
The 74-year-old Aurora woman, who spent 42 years as a Denver Public Schools teacher, reached out to Kaiser Permanente and was also seeking information from King Soopers about where to get inoculated. She never quite got an answer.
Then, on Friday, Allen heard about a pop-up vaccination clinic at Dahlia Square Senior Apartments in northeast Denver, a facility that mostly houses people of color.
“That was yesterday and I’m here,” Allen said Saturday afternoon, beaming after receiving a dose of coronavirus vaccine a few minutes earlier. “It only took a day after I made the right contacts.”
State health officials and Gov. Jared Polis have been criticized in recent weeks over racial and socioeconomic disparities in how the coronavirus vaccine is being distributed across Colorado. In Denver, for instance, people living in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods have been more likely get vaccinated than their counterparts in poorer, more diverse city neighborhoods.
Initial statewide vaccination data released last month showed that Black Coloradans had accounted for just 1.8% of vaccinations even though they represent about 4% of the population. And Hispanic Coloradans had received 4.3% of the vaccines despite making up 22% of the population.
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Polis called those numbers “startling” and “disappointing.”
To tackle the disparities, Polis and his health deputies have started launching pop-up vaccination sites in underserved communities. On Saturday, the governor visited Dahlia Square, a Black church and two Hispanic health care clinics where people were receiving vaccines.
The idea is to meet diverse communities where they are instead of asking them to navigate online vaccination appointment portals and out-of-the way inoculation sites.
“Not everybody has a car and can drive to Coors Field. Not everybody knows how to sign up at UCHealth or Centura on the website,” Polis said. “We really have to be out in communities.”
Five so-called health-equity clinics administered 1,200 doses of coronavirus vaccine over the weekend. Another eight are slated to administer 3,440 doses this week, according to Brig. Gen. Scott Sherman, the Colorado National Guard officer in charge of the state’s vaccine distribution program.
Colorado was already operating vaccine pop-up clinics in underserved areas of the state, including the San Luis Valley. But Polis said numbers showing the extent of the inequity forced him and his deputies to ramp up their efforts.
“We’ve been focused on this from the start,” he said. “We just need to step it up. We need to have more of these efforts across the state.”
The governor’s office said as of Monday, Colorado had operated 18 health-equity clinics.
Polis said another challenge is convincing communities of color that the vaccine is safe to receive. Polling conducted in November showed that Black and Hispanic people, as well as lower-income people, were less likely to say they intended to get the vaccine.
The governor said there are two ways to build vaccine trust among those communities.
First, the state can develop ambassadors. Polis said he talked to a Black woman in her 80s at a vaccination site on Saturday who had five or six friends who were waiting to hear from her if the inoculation is safe before getting it themselves.
Second, he can lead by example. Polis received his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on Saturday at a Salud Family Health Centers clinic in Commerce City, which serves a diverse population.
“They’ll be telling that story at Salud for a long time,” Polis said. “Hopefully that will increase the confidence of a 78-year-old who comes here (and) isn’t sure whether they want it. Maybe that will put them over the top to get it.”