On a scorching hot Wednesday afternoon, in a folding chair positioned directly in the sun, Gov. Jared Polis partook again in a leadership ritual that would have seemed so bizarre at the beginning of his term three years ago: He rolled up his sleeve to reveal his bare shoulder.
In went the needle, and onto what Polis described as “my somewhat tattered vaccination card” went yet another dose of COVID vaccine, Polis’ fourth.
“I’m very excited to roll my sleeves up and get protected,” Polis said as he sat in front of one of the state’s mobile vaccination buses, which was parked outside Ball Arena in Denver. Next to him, Rocky, the mascot for the Denver Nuggets, applauded.
But, as newly formulated COVID vaccine booster shots roll out across the state, it’s unclear if everyone will be as enthusiastic as Polis — much less Rocky.
Nearly 80% of Colorado’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, and nearly 72% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment. Colorado ranks 15th among all states for the percentage of people fully vaccinated.
But, when it comes to booster shots, the response has been more muted. Only about 59% of the state’s fully vaccinated population ages 18 and older has received a booster shot, even though boosters have been available to that age group for months. And, at least until this week, booster demand had been cratering across the state. The number of booster shots administered in the closing weeks of August was the lowest recorded since they became available — though late-arriving data could push those figures higher.
Still, Colorado ranks 12th among states for the highest percentage of fully vaccinated adults who have received at least one booster. That rank gives state officials hope that the omicron-specific boosters will be a hit.
“In Colorado, we’re lucky in that we tend to have higher booster rates than in other parts of the country,” said Diana Herrero, the deputy director of CDPHE’s Division of Disease Control and Public Health Response.
Asked about the recent slowdown in booster shots, Herrero said: “I do think that’s because of some folks waiting for this new booster.”
Your first annual COVID shot
What makes this new booster so special? It’s the first to be specifically formulated against a COVID variant.
Previously, booster shots were just another dose of the same vaccine that’s been around since late 2020 — one that was formulated to fight versions of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that have essentially been swept off the Earth by a succession of faster-moving variants. The original vaccine is still good at preventing people from getting really sick, going to the hospital or dying. But, with the emergence of omicron and its subvariants combined with waning immunity from previous shots, the virus largely regained its power to infect people who had been vaccinated.
So two vaccine-makers, Pfizer and Moderna, reformulated their vaccines to also target the latest spawn of omicron — the BA.4 and BA.5 variants. The two account for an estimated 93% of all new infections in Colorado, according to state data.
The result is what is called a “bivalent” vaccine, an inoculation that triggers your immune system to develop defenses against more than one version of a virus. Such vaccines are common for annual flu shots, where health care providers are trying to cover as much ground as possible against various strains that may circulate.
That makes this new coronavirus booster perhaps the most significant indication yet of what the world looks like with COVID as just another part of the everyday health landscape. Polis, just prior to getting his shot earlier this week, said he believes he will probably need another COVID shot next year, one that is formulated to target the variants circulating at that time.
“It’ll likely be an annual COVID vaccine, along with your flu vaccine, that is especially recommended for people who are older or more vulnerable,” he said.
Where and when to get it
As part of its campaign to get boosters into arms, the state has organized what is likely the last hurrah for its mass vaccination strategy.
Over the next week, the state will hold 10 large-scale vaccination clinics spread out across the state — such as the one at Ball Arena, but also including clinics at shopping malls in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, at the fairgrounds in La Plata County and at venues like Water World and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Adams County. A complete list of the mass clinics is available, along with lists for other vaccine providers, at covid19.colorado.gov/vaccinefinder. Retail pharmacies, such as Walgreens or those inside Walmart, Safeway and King Soopers stores, also have supplies of the booster, as do major health systems like UCHealth or Kaiser Permanente and local public health departments.
Herrero said the state has close to 300,000 doses incoming from the federal government over the first few days of the booster campaign. The shots are being paid for by the feds, so they are free to their recipients, and neither identification nor your previous vaccine card are necessary.
Pfizer’s booster shot is approved for everyone ages 12 and older, while Moderna’s is approved for those 18 and older.
People wanting to receive a booster shot should be at least two months past their most recent COVID vaccine dose. Herrero said people who recently caught COVID should wait about three months after their illness to get boosted, just to ensure full efficacy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a handy calculator on its website to help people determine when they should get their booster.
“Those little buggers just adapt so fast”
So, should you get a booster shot?
The answer has become awfully personal. Hospitalizations and deaths from COVID still occur every day in Colorado. But their numbers have fallen, and most health care professionals are not terribly worried about the risk of severe illness for people who are already vaccinated and boosted at least once.
Side effects have kept some people from getting more recent boosters, while others say they don’t see the need. Even the vote by the independent CDC advisory committee to recommend the new bivalent boosters was split, 13-1, with the one “no” vote wanting to see more efficacy data before giving his OK.
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But, as Janet Barnes sat in the shade of a pop-up tent outside Ball Arena this week waiting for her turn to get her shot, these concerns were not on her mind. Barnes, who is 65 and from Westminster, is a former microbiologist for Kaiser Permanente. She knows viruses.
“I am thankful that it is so easy to become protected because this virus in particular spreads like wildfire,” she said.
As COVID has receded from the forefront of people’s minds, Barnes said she has also become more lax in her precautions. But now, her daughter is getting married in two weeks. She doesn’t want to miss that — or risk infecting others at the event. So it’s time to get another shot, she said. It’s her best chance to counter a virus that has spent years trying to outflank her defenses.
“In the world of microbiology, human beings just don’t ever win,” she said of the never-ending fight against viruses. “Those little buggers just adapt so fast.”