Colorado’s expansion of vaccine access stokes fears that appointments will be even harder to find – The Denver Post

How to make an appointment

Brad Schildt has been haunting Walmart and King Soopers pharmacy websites to try to find a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, and he expects it’s only going to get harder as the state opens eligibility to everyone over 16 starting Friday.

Schildt, 56, became eligible in Phase 1B.4 of Colorado’s vaccine distribution plan, which began March 19. That phase includes about 2.5 million people who are 50 or older, have a chronic health condition, or work in frontline jobs.

It isn’t clear how many people in Phase 1B.4 have been vaccinated in the two weeks they’ve been eligible, but Schildt says demand is still high enough that when he finds an appointment, it disappears before he finishes filling out the information to book it.

“It’s going to be even harder to get those scarce appointments,” he said of the state’s plan to make the general public eligible.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said about 34% of residents in their 50s have received a shot. It’s difficult to know what percentage of all people in Phase 1B.4 have been vaccinated, because they might qualify in multiple phases — for example, someone with one chronic condition who’s over 60, or who works as a teacher, could have gotten the shot earlier, the health department said in a statement.

The decision to expand eligibility was based not only on how many people have been vaccinated in the previous phase, but also on anticipated vaccine supply, how many doses providers can get into arms and ways to expand the rollout, like the state’s newly opened mass-vaccination sites, the statement said.

The quick expansion comes amid concerns that Coloradans at higher risk of serious complications and death from the virus, including older residents and people with disabilities, will now have an even harder time securing appointments.

Gov. Jared Polis urged patience when he announced Monday that the state would expand eligibility to everyone 16 and older Friday. Anyone who wants a vaccine will have a chance to get one by summer, he said.

“We still anticipate by mid-to-late May, six to eight weeks from now, everybody who wants a vaccine will have had a vaccine,” he said.

To date, more than 1 million people have been fully immunized in Colorado, with 1.7 million people having received at least one shot of a two-dose regimen, according to state health department records.

Polis has asked vaccine providers to continue prioritizing older people, but the state hasn’t set any guidelines for how to do that, or any penalties for those who adopt a first-come, first-served model.

In previous rounds, the state waited until about half of people in the current category had received at least one shot before expanding eligibility. About 70% of people older than 60 have been vaccinated, but it’s not clear how many people eligible because of a job or health condition have gotten the shot.

There’s no perfect time to expand eligibility, said Lisa Miller, a professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health.

States can’t wait until everyone in one category is vaccinated before opening another, because that would slow down the distribution process. But they also need to support the work of targeting harder-to-reach people, so it’s not only people who are enthusiastic and good at navigating the system who get vaccinated, she said.

“I don’t think that there is some kind of magical number,” she said.

Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, said she supports expanding eligibility to protect more people. Some of the groups the union represents, like grocery workers, became eligible before Phase 1B.4.

“We welcome Governor Polis’ decision to open eligibility to everyone 16 and older starting on April 2 so our members’ families and community members can protect each other,” she said.

Others have concerns that essential workers and vulnerable people could be “crowded out.”

Older people and those with certain disabilities are at a higher risk of dying from the virus, but may have trouble navigating the sign-up system, said Nancy Berlinger, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, a think-tank focused on health care and science.

Frontline workers who face the most risk also are more likely to have barriers to finding an appointment, such as lack of internet access or limited ability to speak English, than people who can safely work at home, she said.

Dave Hopp, of Littleton, said it wasn’t easy for him to get an appointment in Phase 1B.4, even though he works in information technology. If the state is opening up eligibility because appointments aren’t being filled, it should make the process easier for people who aren’t computer savvy or don’t have the time to scour websites every day, he said.

“If (appointments) are going empty, it’s because people don’t know how to sign up,” he said. “There should be some way to connect them.”

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