BOOSTED: Additional dose rates inch up in Aurora as Polis expands eligibility to all adults

A Colorado mobile vaccine bus opens for business recently, offering COVID-19 booster shots and first-time vaccines. PHOTO BY SENTINEL COLORADO

AURORA | The third, or sometimes second, time’s the charm for arms across Aurora these days.

Thousands of area residents are slowly moving to receive their additional dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as serious case rates are surging so quickly that state hospitals have been permitted to turn away certain patients.

Gov. Jared Polis today announced there would be no limitations to who would or wouldn’t qualify for a booster shot, as long as the person asking is over the age of 18.

As of Nov. 10, just more than 36,000 Aurora residents — about 9% of the city’s population — had received a booster shot, defined as a second dose if they received the one-jab Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or a third dose if they received a full, two-dose inoculation of the Moderna or Pfizer juice, according to data from the Tri-County Health Department.

That’s an increase of more than 5,000 boosted Aurorans in the past week, according to Tri-County figures.

Across the entire Tri-County Health jurisdiction, about 150,000 people have so far gotten a shot on top of what the federal government defines as fully vaccinated, accounting for about 13.5% of Douglas County residents with a booster, and 9.2% of Adams County dwellers. Arapahoe County rates sit in the middle.

Still, nearly half of all booster doses doled out so far in the Tri-County region have fallen to Arapahoe County, while about 41,000 booster shots have gone into the arms of Douglas County residents, and another roughly 40,000 have gone to Adams County denizens, data show.

But who’s eligible to receive booster shots, and where and when residents can find them, has proven to be a morass at both the state and federal level.

“It has been confusing,” said Dr. John Douglas, executive director of the Tri-County Health Department. “ … But I do think the dust is settling now and the recommendations have become more clear. I think, however, anytime you start out with anything being a little confusing, it takes a while to get rid of that initial confusion.”

Polis’ announcement Wednesday will also work to end confusion, state officials said.

The U.S. Food and Drug administration in September approved Pfizer boosters for certain populations, including anyone over 65 years old, and adults deemed to be at a higher risk of contracting severe COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions. Those criteria were expanded to include the nation’s other vaccine manufacturers, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Currently, federal guidance says that select populations who completed a full course of the Moderna of Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago should get another dose, and those who received a J&J shot more than two months ago should get yet another jab.

In Colorado, that’s translated to the state sending out thousands of text messages to residents who reach their vaccine anniversaries, regardless of their age or medical records.

“I got one of them as well,” Douglas said of the rolling tsunami of texts. “And when you clicked on the link, it told you where you could get it, but not should you get it. There were some dots that didn’t get connected there.”

State officials have since clarified that any vaccinated adult is eligible to receive a booster shot due to the prevalence of COVID-19 across Colorado. Health authorities have argued that because rates across the Centennial State are so severe — Colorado currently ranks only behind North Dakota and Alaska in terms of cases per capita — that every single resident technically lives in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have referred to as “a high-risk setting.”

“With an estimated 1 in 48 Coloradans infected, it is likely that all Coloradans can be exposed to COVID-19 where they live or work,” said Kristen Stewart, spokesperson for the state’s join information center.

Residents are able to receive a booster at any vaccine provider, including most pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS, as well as the state’s mobile bus clinics.

For months, Polis has repeatedly urged any resident who manages to find themselves in the presence of a booster to roll up their sleeve, a notion he memorialized with a new executive order Thursday.

“Every Coloradan is now eligible to get the booster so they can protect themselves and their families,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.

Douglas, with Tri-County, noted that Polis was pushing boosters even before the federal government gave the initial thumbs-up on the shots.

“I do think he has probably been promoting boosters a little faster than the actual FDA did,” he said.

Boosters aside, Douglas said the priority among vaccine distribution is still on older adults who have chosen not to get inoculated against the virus. The overall vaccination rate in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties currently hovers at about 80%, according to Tri-County data, though about 15% of residents over 70 in Adams County have yet to complete their full dose, as is the case with about 10% of older Arapahoe County denizens. About 97% of Douglas County seniors have completed their vaccine doses.

“If we could give 100 doses, the priority would be older people who are not vaccinated,” Douglas said. “We’ve done quite well, but we’ve got 5% to 10% in that 70-plus age group who haven’t been vaccinated. There are people who have decided they don’t want the vaccine, or for some reason have just not been convinced. And there are still people who have access issues, be it with transportation, language problems, etc. But I would say next to that is really anybody else who hasn’t gotten their first dose — they are the next most important group. Next to that would be these higher risk categories that the CDC lists who need booster.”

Douglas said health officials are still pushing an overall message to get everyone vaccinated, including recently authorized children between the ages of 5 and 11, instead of focusing on one particular subgroup.

“We think there’s enough vaccine for all of the above — boosters, kids and the unvaccinated — and we think we can walk and chew gum at the same time by speaking to a bunch of different populations.”

Incidence rates have been slowly trending up in the past two months across Aurora’s three counties as temperatures have cooled and people have been thrust indoors.

The seven-day rolling average of cases per 100,000 residents in Aurora’s trio of counties is currently about 43, according to Tri-County figures. That’s up from a weekly average of about five in June and July, but still far below the previous peak of about 116 this time last year.

Currently, hospital capacity is the pressing worry for health care workers like Douglas.

“I’m very concerned about it,” he said.

Roughly 1,426 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized, and state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said Wednesday the state could hit 2,258 COVID-19 hospitalizations by Jan. 1, a record high for the pandemic.

The delta variant surge combined with hospital staffing shortages has left roughly 720 total beds available in intensive care and acute care units, according to the Colorado Hospital Association.

In Arapahoe County, hospitals are just about at capacity, with local intensive care units reportedly about 99% full as of Nov. 11. There are currently 209 people hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID in the county.

Also as of Thursday, about 13% of hospital beds in the Tri-County jurisdiction were occupied by COVID patients, which rivals totals in April 2020, but is dwarfed by the nearly 20% rate spurred by the surge at the start of last winter. COVID-related hospital admissions were there highest at any point during the pandemic on Oct. 25, when 199 people across the city’s three counties entered a hospital to be treated for COVID.

The majority of those cases remain among unvaccinated individuals, data show, with more than three quarters of cases reported in Aurora’s three counties since March popping up in unvaccinated people. Arapahoe County leads the way in total breakthrough cases with nearly 6,500 reported. Cases among the fully vaccinated have yet to surpass 5,000 in either Adams or Douglas County.

To improve hospital capacity, the state is increasing availability of monoclonal antibody treatment. Patients are eligible if they are at least 12 years of age, have mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms but do not yet require hospitalization and have a condition that puts them at high risk for the virus.

The state is equipping mobile clinics in buses with the monoclonal antibody infusion teams in an effort to encourage sickened people to seek out the treatment. Two buses are already deployed and more are planned.

The state hopes that using monoclonal antibodies will help reduce the number of people who are hospitalized when the virus peaks this winter by 12-23%. However, Polis stressed that no treatment is as effective as vaccination.

All of this is underpinned, yet again, by local politics. The schism of Tri-County Health was made complete last month when the Adams County Board of Directors agreed to leave the decades-old health collective. The Douglas County board agreed to do so earlier this summer.

That’s left Arapahoe County officials to fend for themselves in the coming years, a move that is expected to cost all three involved counties millions of additional dollars in logistical fees and retirement payments.

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