AURORA | For most Aurorans, the vaccine can’t come soon enough.
But a combination of distribution problems and distrust have created early disparities across Aurora about seven weeks after the first vaccine dose was administered in the region. Data from the Tri-County Health Department show that wealthier zip codes with more white residents, on Aurora’s southern and eastern flanks, are seeing higher rates of inoculation than the city center.
Southeast Aurora’s 80016 zip code, which includes the neighborhoods of Southlands, Tallyn’s Reach and Saddlerock, currently has the highest vaccination rate in the city.
There, almost 70% of residents aged 70 and above had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Feb. 2. The median household income there is more than $123,000 annually, and the zip code includes some of the city’s whitest neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, northwest Aurora’s 80010 and 80011 zip codes each have vaccination rates hovering near 11% for the same age group. These zip codes include much more diverse neighborhoods with higher proportions of Black and Hispanic residents Average household incomes are below $60,000 per year.
Karen Miller, Tri-County’s nurse immunization manager, told the Sentinel that it’s still early in the push to vaccinate older residents. It’s the first stage of inoculating the general public.
But “you can already start to see” the disparities, she said.
That’s frustrating for some community leaders, who point out that Black and Hispanic residents have suffered from high virus rates during the pandemic and desperately need the vaccine.
“We need to step the game up in Aurora,” said Omar Montgomery, who leads the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “The question is, what is Tri-County doing?”
Officials at Tri-County and the upper echelons of state government say they’re set on quickly fixing the disparities. Tri-County is due to release an equity plan in the coming days and accelerate partnerships with community hubs experts say are crucial to delivering shots.
Recognizing that disparities exist statewide, Gov. Jared Polis has also pledged to set aside 10% of the state’s vaccine supply just for low-income and minority communities who have proved harder to reach or are more skeptical of the mass vaccination efforts.
Polis told the Sentinel that the disparities are “extremely alarming.”
Why it’s happening
Overall, 7.5% of the 1.5 million residents in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties have received at least one vaccination shot as of Feb 2. That includes health care workers, nursing home employees and residents aged 70 and above.
The racial and class disparities within that group aren’t unique to Aurora. They’re also unfolding in Denver and across the U.S.
“This was a major concern coming into the era of having vaccines,” Glen Mays, chairperson of the Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy in the Colorado School of Public Health, said of the trends. “We knew this was a likelihood, a reality, that we have to plan for and react to. And it’s definitely playing out.”
Community leaders and public health experts told the Sentinel that the rollout has so far been unequal in part because of unequal access to healthcare.
Mays said that the big hospital networks supplying much of the vaccine to Aurorans —including Kaiser Permanente and UCHealth — have so far relied on their own client lists when releasing information about how and where to get the shot. That effectively prioritizes people who already have access to healthcare and who are likely wealthier, he said, and “automatically guarantees” disparities.
Adam Anderson, a health data scientist at Tri-County, said similar disparities play out in other kinds of healthcare — not just the vaccines.
Health officials have to deliberately provide options for low-income mothers, for instance, who might struggle to afford traditional healthcare and even food. Tri-County has also set up clinics for teens and needle users in specific neighborhoods where they know there’s higher rates of teen pregnancies, for instance, or drug use.
That’s a tactic they plan to use more in the vaccination drive.
But Tri-County’s data is still rough around the edges. Anderson noted that there are many different nuances when looking at entire zip codes, and the current data dashboard doesn’t break down vaccination rates by race and neighborhoods. So they don’t yet know exactly how or where they’ll target hard-to-reach people.
But health authorities generally know that they’ll have to provide more vaccination options for Black and Hispanic people in lower-income communities.
During COVID-19, these Aurorans have contracted COVID-19 and died because of the virus at disproportionately high rates, the experts said. That’s also been true in Denver and generally in the U.S., and it’s a reality that makes the vaccination problems especially dangerous and concerning for community leaders.
“We need it changed — like right away, because these are the ones who are dying. The worst is in our communities,” said Pastor Thomas Mayes of Living Water Christian Center Church.
Yet Mayes and other Black community leaders spoke of widespread distrust in the vaccine drive.
Patrick Demmer, a pastor of a mostly Black congregation in Commerce City, said that’s to be expected because of medical horrors inflicted by big healthcare institutions and government in decades past. He noted that, under the guise of providing free healthcare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deliberately left infected Black men with syphilis untreated between the 1930s and 1970s in the infamous Tuskegee Study. That trauma looms large in the cultural memory.
“There’s a tremendous lack of trust and there is suspicion whenever you start talking about vaccinations and vaccines and those types of things,” Demmer said.
Demmer also said he’s heard some people say, “Well, maybe it’s the mark of the beast” or wonder whether it will change their DNA.
Hesitancy or outright distrust of the vaccine is also common in north Aurora neighborhoods in Ward I, said Councilmember Crystal Murillo, who represents the area. It’s home to a concentration of Aurora’s Hispanic residents.
“I think that there’s just so much apprehension about, ‘Is this safe?’” Murillo said.
She said her grandmother, who is from Mexico, placed more stock in “natural remedies,” rooted in her cultural beliefs, than a government-distributed shot.
Polis said polling confirms that.
“As our initial polling and data show, there’s simply higher vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic Americans,” he said.
Montgomery, the city’s NAACP chief, has helped organize forums where Black residents can ask questions about vaccine safety directly to a health expert. The state is also working with Spanish-language newspapers to push a message of trust.
How health authorities plan to fix this
Health authorities hope to infuse trust into the entire vaccination process for lower-income and minority residents who so far haven’t been able to book an appointment or would prefer not to get the shot.
Tri-County was still in a planning process for a ramped-up equity plan as of Jan. 29. But Miller said plans move “very, very quickly” in the vaccine drive, where doses sometimes suddenly become available or evaporate after botched federal plans.
Mays, the School of Public Health expert, said bringing vaccination events to churches, barbershops, community centers and other neighborhood hubs can create that trust and boost rates. He suggested that Tri-County could deploy a fleet of mobile vaccination units and launch mass vaccination events in specific neighborhoods with high infection rates and low inoculations.
He said there are “reams and reams of data and studies to back this up.”
Tri-County and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have already touted these community partnerships as key parts of the plan. Now, they’ll be armed with 10% of the vaccine supply specifically earmarked for under-reached populations aged 65 and up.
Depending on the local partnership, a vaccine might travel from the state government’s vaccination task force to a hospital and then to a place of worship, whose staff will directly call community members and help them arrive on time for the shot.
A smattering of such partnerships have already come to Aurora. On Jan. 23, about 200 mostly Black congregants were inoculated at the Colorado Church of God in Christ Headquarters at 750 Chambers Road.
Elsewhere, Salud Family Health Centers are busy distributing the vaccine to its clientele of mainly lower-income and minority residents. STRIDE Community Health Center has also been a key partner to inoculate hard-to-reach residents, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
But Mayes and Montgomery said they need to see more of this work. Local pastors have had to point Aurorans to congregations in East Denver and Commerce City for their vaccinations.
“We don’t have anything in Aurora addressing that at the amount that it would really make a difference,” Mayes said.
Tri-County officials also told the Sentinel that, after they double-down on their equity efforts, basic demographics will also be on their side to fix the disparities.
In the next weeks and months, more and more members of the general population will be vaccinated beyond the specialized employees in healthcare, or nursing home residents, who tend to be white and wealthier.
Mayes said that day can’t come soon enough.
“The disparity is a really chilling thing, and it seems like we can only talk about it and not change it,” he said. “Because right now it needs to be changed, like, yesterday. It is indeed a matter of life and death, and not something that we can play with.”