Pharmacist Chris Martin, with UCHealth, holds the first COVID-19 vaccine in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the Memorial Administrative Center for UCHealth, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP)

With 2021 comes the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine, and hopefully, a shift toward normal. 

But experts say that won’t be for several months. The initial rollout of the vaccine has been taking longer than expected and Congress has drawn out negotiations over a relief package while millions of Americans anxiously look for a way forward. 

So what’s next? 

The U.S. could be facing a terrible winter: Despite warnings to stay home and avoid others over Christmastime, nearly 1.3 million people went through the nation’s airports on Dec. 27, the highest one-day total since the crisis took hold in the U.S. nine months ago.

The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed expects to have shipped 20 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to states by the beginning of January, fewer than originally estimated to the frustration of states and health officials trying to schedule the shots.

Nationally, there is no real-time tracking of how quickly people are getting the first of the two required doses. As of Dec. 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reports of more than 1.9 million vaccinations, out of more than 9.5 million doses shipped — but the agency knows that count is outdated. It can take days for reports from vaccine providers to trickle in and get added to the site.

In Colorado, 67,047 doses of the vaccine had been administered as of Dec. 28, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Officials update the running total of doses doled out at about 4 p.m. each day. 

On the economic front, things look equally grim for the immediate future. Congress and President Donald Trump have bickered over aid and states lack enough resources to send out checks to their residents like the federal government can. 

In Colorado, qualms over indoor dining and keeping businesses open continue to plague political talks, courtrooms and media reports.

A new obstacle to containing the spread of virus appeared in Elbert County, east of Aurora this week after word of the first reported U.S. variant infection, which emerged in Colorado.

That person was identified Wednesday as a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak. Health officials said a second Guard member may have it too.

Two cases in Colorado and now more in California triggered a host of questions about how the version circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.

“The virus is becoming more fit, and we’re like a deer in the headlights,” warned Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He noted that the U.S. does far less genetic sequencing of virus samples to discover variants than other developed nations, and thus was probably slow to detect this new mutation.

The two Elbert County Guard members had been dispatched Dec. 23 to work at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in the small town of Simla, in a mostly rural area about 90 miles outside Denver, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist. They were among six Guard members sent to the home.

Nasal swab samples taken from the two as part of the Guard’s routine coronavirus testing were sent to the state laboratory, which began looking for the variant after its spread was announced in Britain earlier this month, Herlihy said. Samples from staff and residents at the nursing home are also being screened for the variant at the lab, but so far no evidence of it has been found, she said.

The Colorado case announced Tuesday involves a man in his 20s who had not traveled recently, officials said. He has mild symptoms and is isolating at his home near Denver, while the person with the suspected case is isolating at a Colorado hotel while further genetic analysis is done on his sample, officials said.

The nursing home said it is working closely with the state and is also looking forward to beginning vaccinations next week.

The discovery here in Colorado has added urgency to the nation’s vaccination drive against COVID-19, which has killed more than 340,000 people in the U.S.

Colorado public health officials are conducting contact tracing to determine its spread.

Researchers estimate the variant is 50% to 70% more contagious, said Dr. Eric France, Colorado’s chief medical officer.

“Instead of only making two or three other people sick, you might actually spread it to four or five people,” France said. “That means we’ll have more cases in our communities. Those number of cases will rise quickly and, of course, with more cases come more hospitalizations.”

Jeanna Brewer, an RN at The Medical Center of Aurora, was the first to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, Dec. 16, 2020, at the hospital. TMCA received 375 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in their first delivery and expect 2100 doses of the Moderna vaccine next week, pending the FDA’s approval for Emergency Use Authorization.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

THE VACCINE 

Deciding that health care workers and nursing home residents should be first in line for the initial, limited supplies of COVID-19 shots wasn’t that hard a call. Now U.S. health officials have to determine who should be next.

How high a priority, for example, should senior citizens, teachers, transit workers and supermarket employees get in the next few months as more vaccine becomes available?

A federal panel of vaccination experts took up that question at an emergency meeting earlier this month. Its guidance — which determined that front-line essential workers and those over the age of 75 get the vaccine next — is not binding, and it’s certain the effort will be different from state to state.

In Colorado, residents and staff members of long-term care facilities and healthcare workers who directly interact with COVID-19 patients are at the front of the line for the vaccine, and started to get vaccinated when the first doses arrived in Colorado on Dec. 14. Several Aurora medical hubs were among the first facilities to receive both vaccines, including University of Colorado Hospital, Children’s Hospital Colorado, the Medical Center of Aurora and multiple Kaiser Permanente locations in the city. Population size and the ability to keep the Pfizer inoculation at the necessary sub-freezing temperatures determined where state officials have stored and administered initial doses, according to information released by the state health department.

On Dec. 30, the state upset its preliminary plans, lowering the age of next up for vaccine to 70. Also, teachers and essential workers, including those who face the public, moved up the list of priorities.

Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday said that in counties where front-line medical workers have been vaccinated, the next group can begin getting inoculations.

Polis said “Phase 1B” now covers anyone 70 and older, “who represent 78% of all COVID deaths in our state.”

How elder residents and other priority recipients will received notice of where and when to get vaccinations is forthcoming, officials said.

“Frontline essential workers” will include:

  • Educators and daycare staff
  • Food and agriculture workers
  • Manufacturing
  • U.S. Postal Service
  • Public Transit and specialized transportation personnel
  • Grocery workers
  • Public Health workers
  • Direct care providers for Coloradans experiencing homelessness
  • Essential personnel for the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government
  • Frontline journalists

Here’s the new Colorado schedule of priorities:

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment COVID-19 vaccine priority chart, amended Dec. 30, 2020

The state’s vaccine distribution plan is divided into three stages, with healthcare workers who do not directly interact with COVID-19 patients and first responders such as paramedics and police making up the second half of stage one. The state hopes to vaccinate this group in the winter.

In the spring, the state will begin vaccinating high-risk individuals and other categories of essential workers. High-risk individuals include people over the age of 65 and those with preexisting conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

Essential workers include those who interact directly with the public, such as school staff, grocery store workers and people who work in farms or meatpacking facilities. People who received a placebo in a vaccine trial will also be vaccinated in this group.

The third and final stage, Coloradans who are not high risk and are not essential workers, will probably be vaccinated in the summer. Details on that phase of the inoculation rollout remain scant. Colorado remains in the very first phase of the distribution plan, and officials have only said that reaching the next stage will hinge on proper logistics and overall vaccine supply. 

Where low-risk individuals may be able to get inoculated this summer also remains open-ended, as officials have yet to lay out details. And while there is no “priority list” maintained by the state, officials are largely asking healthcare providers to vet those seeking the coveted injection. 

“Individual vaccine providers, in consultation with their local public health agencies, will need to use their best judgement about which patients may be eligible for vaccination during each of the phases,” health officials wrote on the state’s COVID-19 web portal. 

Initially, Colorado had inmates in the second phase of vaccine distribution, set for the spring, behind health workers and first responders but ahead of other adults over 65 with health conditions. Prisoners were to be treated like others in group housing, including homeless shelters and college dorms. 

But an outcry followed. Suburban Arapahoe County prosecutor George Brauchler said the plan would have allowed two men convicted of killing the son of 66-year-old state Sen. Rhonda Fields to be vaccinated before her.

“The people who murdered her son would get it before she would,” Brauchler said. 

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis bowed to criticism last week, updating the plan to prioritize age and health risks over where people live. Jail staffers will still get the vaccine in the second phase, along with first responders. 

“Whether you’re in prison or not, if you’re 67 years old or at risk, wherever you are, you’ll have access to the vaccine when 67-year-old’s have access to vaccines,” Polis said.

Though Colorado changed course, California, North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, Utah, New Mexico, Nebraska, Montana and Massachusetts have prisoners among the first to get the vaccine this winter. Some states also have taken steps to reduce COVID-19 risks behind bars by releasing nonviolent offenders early.

But even in states with the biggest prison outbreaks, inmates often weren’t included in early vaccine distribution plans. 

The five states with the highest number of coronavirus cases in their prisons, according to data compiled as part of a joint project by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project — Texas, California, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin — did not include details about how they would prioritize prisoners in their October draft reports to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

For families of inmates, the uncertainty is gut-wrenching. They’re pleading with state officials to consider the transmission risks behind bars. Medical experts also have suggested that living arrangements in prisons call for higher priority.

“From a public health perspective, it’s also really important because what we’ve seen is they are hot spots,” said Maria Morris, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “And people are coming and going out of prison. There’s no way to avoid that.” 

That includes officers, administrative staff, lawyers and medical and mental health workers.

More than 249,000 inmates have tested positive and nearly 1,700 have died from COVID-19 nationwide. At a prison in Colorado last week, nearly three-quarters of inmates caught the virus.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Colorado has been fighting for early release for some prisoners to lower their risk.

FILE – In this Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, speaks during a news conference with other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, while Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, listens at left. “There will be another major rescue package for the American people,” McConnell said in announcing an agreement for a relief bill, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, that would total almost $900 billion. “It is packed with targeted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long.” (Nicholas Kamm/Pool Photo via AP, File)

A RELIEF PACKAGE, MAYBE

As of this publishing there’s been no decision on the fate of the $2,000 checks President Donald Trump has ordered over the $600 Congress has agreed upon. 

After bipartisan approval by the House, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer warned, “There is no good reason for Senate Republicans to stand in the way.”

“There’s strong support for these $2,000 emergency checks from every corner of the country,” Schumer said in a statement late Dec 28. He called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to make sure the Senate helps “meet the needs of American workers and families who are crying out for help.”

As of Wednesday, the fate of the additional stimulus money looked bleak. McConnell has saddled the boost to other complaints made by Trump, addressing his unfounded complaints about the election. The move spells almost certain doom for the increased stimulus amount.

The House tally was a stunning turn of events. Just days ago Republicans blocked Trump’s sudden demands for bigger checks during a brief Christmas Eve session as he defiantly refused to sign the broader COVID-19 aid and year-end funding bill into law.

The showdown could end up as more symbol than substance if Trump’s effort fizzles out in the Senate.

The legislative action during the rare holiday week session may do little to change the $2 trillion-plus COVID-19 relief and federal spending package Trump signed into law Sunday, one of the biggest bills of its kind providing relief for millions of Americans.

That package — $900 billion in COVID-19 aid and $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies — will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and avert a federal government shutdown that otherwise would have started Dec 29, in the midst of the public health crisis.

FILE – In this June 15, 2020, file photo, members of the Colorado House of Representatives toil as lawmakers try to wrap up the 2020 session in the State Capitol in Denver. In an effort to keep Colorado residents fed and employed this winter, Colorado’s Legislature concluded a special session Wednesday, Dec. 2, by passing bills offering assistance to restaurants and food pantries struggling to keep their doors open during the coronavirus pandemic. This week’s session, called by Gov. Jared Polis, also passed bills creating and expanding several grant programs to improve internet access for students, assist childcare providers and aid individuals struggling to pay their utility and housing bills. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

WHAT ABOUT THE STATE?

Colorado legislators met last month for an emergency session to come up with their own relief package. While not as beefy as what the federal government is slated to provide, many of Colorado’s legislators said it’s the most they could do with the resources they have. More substantial aid is up to Congress.

Gov. Jared Polis, who signed the bills in isolation because he had tested positive for the virus, said Colorado’s session could be a model for other states and even Congress because of the bipartisan effort that brought it over the finish line. Legislators passed nine bills delivering additional unemployment money, help for small businesses, non-profit organizations, food banks and people who need help paying utilities this winter. 

Democratic Sen. Tammy Story, the sponsor of a bill to add $5 million for the state’s Food Pantry Assistance Grant Program, stressed that one out of three Colorado residents doesn’t have enough food because of the pandemic’s economic fallout. 

Restaurants serving financially stable Colorado residents could receive relief from a tax break allowing the restaurants to keep monthly sales tax receipts rather than paying it to the state. Diners pay 2.9 percent state sales tax on restaurant bills.

Lawmakers also passed a $37 million “direct relief” bill for food and retail establishments and other small businesses subject to severe capacity limits under public health orders.

Lawmakers said the tax credit bill may not provide much relief because fewer people are eating out due to the moratorium on indoor dining in most of the state under public health restrictions. They were receptive to hints from restaurant owners who said more financial help may be needed when the regular 2021 legislative session begins. That won’t be until February. Democratic leadership has put off meeting until then to ensure the lawmaking process is safe for legislators and staff. 

“This is not the end of the conversation. There’s more that the federal government needs to do. And yes, there’s more that the Legislature will be able to talk about when they convene,” Polis said following the special session.

State lawmakers also passed bills creating and expanding grant programs to improve internet access for students, and to give loans and grants to childcare providers.

The total legislative funding for new virus assistance grants and direct payments amounted to $180 million, plus $100 million for the governor’s disaster fund to address the pandemic. 

Additionally, Polis said more than 400,000 Colorado residents who received up to $500 in weekly unemployment payments from March 15 to Oct. 24 would begin receiving a one-time state funded $375 check. He originally issued an executive order for the payments in October.

Outdoor dining pods sit outside of the Stanley Marketplace, Sept. 25, 2020. The pods will be used by Annette as seating options during the upcoming colder seasons.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

DINING IN (INSIDE) AGAIN IN 2021

Despite a grim picture and clamped-down restrictions in Aurora, diners and patrons may soon return to some restaurants and gyms in Arapahoe County. The state granted approval of a program this week, potentially easing regulations for some businesses. 

Arapahoe County is one of a handful of counties this month that asked the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to approve its Five-Star Recovery Partner Program. According to the county’s website, officials anticipate they can quickly begin rolling out the program on Jan. 4 after the health department finishes scrutinizing the rules. 

That might allow some indoor dining in restaurants and require businesses to record customers’ names for contact tracing efforts. A similar program is already up and running in Douglas County. 

If Arapahoe County remains in the red zone of the state’s COVID-19 restriction dial, the relaxed rules in restaurants would include: 

• Indoor dining with 25% capacity, only 50 people maximum allowed indoors. Restaurants without a county certification would still have to totally limit indoor dining and put patrons at outdoor tables with members of their household only

• Moving tables from the current requirement of at least six feet apart to ten feet apart

• Improved air flow indoors, whether from opened windows or ventilation systems. 

• Gyms, event centers and general businesses would have to abide by many of the same requirements, along with requiring patrons to make a reservation for a workout. 

Both restaurants and gyms would also have to record names of patrons for contact tracing efforts during outbreaks. Staff would have to monitor employees for possible virus exposures and symptoms on a daily basis, which isn’t required under the normal rules. 

Patrons and employees would still be required to wear masks — including when speaking to a waiter at a restaurant — and social distance. And all participating businesses would have to publicly post contact information for the state health department for customers with concerns that staff weren’t following rules. 

Officials have touted the Five-Star program statewide as a way for some struggling businesses to survive — while reducing viral spread — during a brutal year plagued by outbreaks and limitations. 

Douglas County quickly approved 33 businesses after CDPHE approved its Five-Star program last week. That lot included 18 restaurants and 15 gyms or fitness centers. 

All businesses in Arapahoe County are welcome to apply for the special certifications, but officials said they will prioritize applications from restaurants, gyms and indoor events centers. Plus, businesses who have already flouted COVID-19 restrictions won’t be able to apply. 

After county inspectors see how businesses have tweaked their spaces, they’ll receive a certification placard to hang in their window. 

The rules for certified businesses would also become more relaxed if virus case counts land Arapahoe County back in orange territory on the state’s COVID-19 dial. Then, restaurants could fill their space to 50% capacity with a maximum of 100 indoor diners. 

Adams County officials have yet to announce whether they’ll roll out a similar program there. 

Sonia Riggs, chief executive officer of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said she expects that restaurants will apply to the program. But she said that the program is probably too burdensome with its many requirements and application process. 

“We worry that as a result, this program will not be implemented fast enough to make a real difference in many places,” Riggs said.

Instances of new COVID-19 cases in the Tri-County region have somewhat declined during December after a November peak, but incidence rates — which measure the number of people with the virus during a two-week period — remain very high. Health officials continue to warn of a “surge on surge” slamming the region’s hospitals after the holidays. 

It’s unclear exactly how much restaurants and gyms have contributed to viral spread in Aurora. 

The Tri-County Health Department’s contact tracing data listed eateries second among a list of common places people who tested positive for the virus reported going between Sept. 29 through Dec. 1.

Earlier this month, Mayor Mike Coffman and councilmembers Francoise Bergan, Marsha Berzins, Dave Gruber and Curtis Gardner asked Gov. Jared Polis to allow some indoor dining during the winter. 

Students wearing facemasks sit socailly distanced in a classroom at East Village Community Elementary School, Aug. 20, 2020. Photo by Jeremy Chavez/Cherry Creek Schools

SCHOOLS FORGE AHEAD

After months of online learning this fall, school districts across the metro area have decided to resume in-person learning in January, saying that now that they’ve had more time to learn how COVID-19 affects schools they can better keep students safe.

The Metro Denver Partnership for Health, a collaborative of local public health agencies, found that schools are affected by community transmission but are not themselves significant drivers of transmission. If protection measures such as cohorting and mask wearing are in place, it’s possible for schools to be open safely even if there’s a high level of COVID-19 transmission in the community.

Once community transmission rates reach 500-750 per 100,000 people however, it becomes much harder for schools to stay open. Adams County’s incidence rate is currently 600, and Arapahoe County’s is 524. Incidence rates have decreased steadily over the past several weeks, but it’s unclear whether a post-holiday spike in cases could drive them back up.

Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District both plan to open next month, with Cherry Creek starting with three days of remote learning and bringing students into the classroom on Jan. 11. APS will spend the first week fully remote and bring students back in a hybrid model beginning Jan. 19.

Cherry Creek will be offering free COVID-19 testing for all district students in the hopes that it will add another layer of protection and cut down on asymptomatic transmission. Students can get tested before school and results should be ready that same day.

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