We haven’t gotten to the president’s goal of 70% by July 4, but I’m still hoping and praying, and we’re doing everything we can to try to get there. The trend lines suggest we won’t get there in Arapahoe and Adams. We might get there in Douglas.
As the deadline for President Joe Biden’s self-imposed goal to vaccinate 70% of Americans by Independence Day looms and a new variant is spreading across the region, Colorado health officials are scrambling to get more vaccines into residents’ arms.
Not enough owners of those arms, though, appear to be cooperating.
About 47.6% of Aurora residents have received at least one dose of vaccine as of this week, according to Tri-County Health Department data, though officials have said that’s likely a conservative estimate and the true totals could be as much as 8% higher. About half of the state’s some 5.7 million residents have been fully vaccinated as of this week.
Local health director Dr. John Douglas said he wants to buoy vaccination rates in Aurora in an effort to stave off a blossoming onslaught of highly contagious variants.
“I want them to be better,” Douglas said of the region’s vaccination rates. “We haven’t gotten to the President’s goal of 70% by July 4, but I’m still hoping and praying, and we’re doing everything we can to try to get there. The trend lines suggest we won’t get there in Arapahoe and Adams. We might get there in Douglas.”
About 64% of residents in the three counties that Aurora touches had been inoculated with at least one dose as of June 17, which was the latest Tri-County Health Department data available at press deadline. Higher rates in Douglas County, where about 68% of residents have gotten the jab, have buoyed lower totals in the region’s northern jurisdictions, where about 62% of residents have gotten a shot. More than 70% of Denverites have received at least one dose of vaccine.
To bump those numbers, city, county and state officials have rolled out a vaccine blitz in recent weeks to give out more jabs to the remaining half of Aurora region residents who remain without viral protection.
For weeks, the City of Aurora has been staging a free weekend vaccine clinic at city hall, joining myriad other groups across the city, such as the Village Exchange Center and Vasa Fitness on East Colfax Avenue, in giving out the juice.
At the state level, officials on Monday began making personal phone calls to residents who are on record as not having received a dose of vaccine. The move is the latest in a series of efforts to boost vaccination rates, including $1 million giveaways, mailers and a fleet of bus-bound clinics.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra joined a smattering of Colorado politicos in Aurora to further trumpet calls to get vaccinated.
“We know that this vaccine is the key to ending this pandemic,” Scott Bookman, the state health department’s COVID-19 czar, said at a news conference earlier this week.
The push comes as a highly contagious variant of the virus slithers through communities along the Western Slope, many of which have lower rates of vaccination. Moffat County in the northwest corner of the state is currently boasting the highest incidence rates in the state, with many of the new cases linked to the new delta variant; about 40% of all new cases across the state contain the new strain, sequencing numbers suggest. Mesa, Rio Blanco and Delta counties all also have incidence rates higher than 100 cases over a weeklong span.
San Miguel, Dolores and Costilla counties join Moffatt as the only Colorado jurisdictions with two-week positivity rates over 10%. Of the aforementioned Western Colorado counties with higher rates of the virus, only San Miguel County still has some form of governmental public health order in place, according to state health department data.
The new splinter strain is several times more contagious than the original iterations of COVID-19, according to Centers for Disease Control and other experts. It was first found in India in late 2020 and showed up in Colorado in Mesa County in early May.
About 10% of all U.S. cases are currently linked to the variant, though Colorado is behind only Missouri in terms of the strain’s prevalence among residents.
“I think the best bet is this is going to spread statewide,” Douglas with Tri-County Health said. “I don’t think we’re doing anything the Brits weren’t doing. I think it’s just a matter of when.”
Douglas said that although the bulk of delta variant cases are currently sequestered to the Western Slope, there are pockets of the strain in Adams, Boulder, El Paso and Fremont Counties. The strain had reached a total of 28 of the state’s 64 counties as of last week, with the bulk tethered to Mea County surrounding Grand Junction, according to state health reports. Citing that more than 90% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.K. are now believed to be linked to the delta strain, Douglas said he expects the strain to eclipse other forms of the virus in Colorado by the end of the summer.
As of this week, there were 12 confirmed delta cases in Arapahoe County and 10 in Adams, though that only represents a fraction of all new cases, as state officials don’t currently sequence all case samples to determine their specific strain.
Current data suggests that the new variant is resulting in a higher rate of hospitalization, though Douglas said that has yet to manifest in the Aurora region. Fewer than 3% of regional hospital beds were occupied by a COVID-19 patient as of the beginning of this week. That’s down from about 19% in December. Intensive care units in all three of Aurora’s counties are currently about 80% full.
Both of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are believed to be about 89% effective against the new variant, with a lower rate for the Johnson & Johnson shot. The bulk of Colorado residents have gotten the Pfizer vaccine, with 3.2 million doses of that company’s blend administered, according to the state health data. That compares to about 2.4 million Moderna doses and about 206,000 shots of Johnson & Johnson, which is also billed as Janssen.
Douglas’ primary concerns center largely on local minority populations, wherein vaccination rates have yet to crack 30%, per Tri-County data.
“I’m deeply concerned about our communities of color,” he said.
In Aurora, just 22% of Hispanic residents and 24% of Black residents have gotten at least one dose, though racial demographic data tied to vaccinations are undercounted in the region and across the country, Douglas said. About 53% of white Aurorans have gotten the vaccine.
Boosting rates among Latinos was a focus of Becerra’s visit to Aurora on June 18 as he toured a mobile vaccine clinic. Many Latinos want to get vaccinated, he said, but have a hard time getting transportation to a clinic or taking time off work. They also have less trust in the government’s promises.
“They’re often the last to be served and the first to be exploited,” Becerra said.
Dr. PJ Parmar, a north Aurora doctor who earlier this year whipped up health officials after announcing he would only inoculate residents of ZIP code 80010 and turn away anyone travelling from other parts of the region, said he remains sour on government attempts to get more shots into the arms of people of color.
“Honestly I’m not sure any initiative from government, local or federal, has much impact,” he wrote in an email. “It’s a trust thing now, and trust is built one person at a time.”
Douglas, too, acknowledged the fear among the city’s Latino residents and said health officials are working with community organizers to push the message of vaccination in hyper-local settings, like specific mobile home parks, high-traffic bus stops and certain housing complexes.
“I hope we don’t create a ‘big brother’ fear, but I think it’s a legitimate concern we’ve got to be aware of,” he said.
Crystal Murillo, who represents north Aurora’s 80010 ZIP code on the city council dais, largely agreed with Douglas’ stated strategy, saying trusted and ingrained liaisons are the key to assuaging hesitancy.
“I think our best bet is through trusted community messengers and community organizations who have proven that they can build trust with community members, and that they have no motives other than to help people,” she said. “I’m not sure we can overcome any hesitation or concerns people have with government, just generally, and people will lump city government into that as well even though this is not our prerogative.”
Douglas said he’s optimistic that official licensure for the vaccines from the federal Food and Drug Administration, which could be granted later this summer, could sway vaccine holdouts turned off by the previously issued emergency authorization. Murillo expressed skepticism that governmental approval could change people’s minds.
“That’s not something that’s come up in conversations that I’ve had with folks,” she said.
If vaccination numbers continue to decline — about 6,000 Aurora area residents a day were getting vaccinated as of the middle of June compared to more than 20,000 a day in the middle of April — Douglas said another surge could be in store when people begin congregating indoors without distancing, vaccinations and masks.
“Everything we know says that our best protection against delta and the other variants is the highest vaccination cover we can get,” he said. “If we just stopped right now I would really be worried about a fall break.”
As of earlier this month, 465 Aurora residents had died as a result of COVID-19, according to Tri-County data. More than 40,000 Aurorans have contracted the virus since last February.
Statewide, more than 554,000 have contracted the virus, and 6,918 Coloradans have died as of June 21.