NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

Families Feel Left Behind In Colorado’s Uneven Vaccine Rollout

Courtesy of Claire Sandford
Peggy Sandford (right) poses for a photo with her grandchildren outside of her independent living facility in Longmont. Sandford's daughter, Claire, has been trying to get her mother an appointment for vaccines for almost two weeks with no luck.

Claire Sandford had been looking forward to the news for almost a year.

Colorado was expanding the group of residents eligible to receive a dose of COVID-19 vaccine, which included her 88-year-old mother, Peggy. Gov. Jared Polis made the announcement on Dec. 30, moving people 70-and-older farther ahead in the state’s prioritization plan along with first responders, “moderate-risk” health care workers and teachers.

Shortly after, Sandford logged on to her computer and started to look for an appointment for Peggy.

She thought the independent living community her mother was a part of in Longmont would have answers. But when she emailed, they replied that they didn’t have a timeline or information about when her mother would get vaccinated.

Then, she reached out to Kaiser Permanente, Peggy’s health care provider. No luck navigating the website, either.

On Facebook, she started seeing posts from friends getting their first dose of vaccine. First, a young, healthy firefighter. Then, a hospital administrator who works from home.

“I thought, ‘If these people are getting a vaccine, why isn’t my mother?’” Sandford said.

Nearly two weeks later, Sandford is still looking for answers. She’s one of many families caught in a wave of demand crashing against Colorado’s public health departments and hospitals, who are administering their limited supply of vaccines as fast as resources allow.

Many providers have set up waitlists to try to handle the sudden influx of interest, but in the meantime residents are dealing with long wait times on the phone, conflicting messages from multiple levels of government and, ultimately, uncertainty about when vulnerable relatives will get their first dose of vaccine.

“I sure wish the messaging had been different because we could have at least had a calm learning curve instead of that human feeling that someone’s getting something that I’m not getting,” Sandford said. “It’s a really yucky feeling to have.”

Matt Bloom
A sign outside of a Walgreens in Denver informs customers that COVID-19 vaccines are not yet available.

A change in priority

Polis made the decision to move up 70-and-up Coloradans in the state’s prioritization plan based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, he said during his Dec. 30 press conference.

Seniors in that age group have comprised nearly 80% of COVID-19-related deaths in the state. Getting them all vaccinated would be a major turning point in the state’s pandemic response, he said. Polis estimated it would take “four or five weeks” to get everyone their first shot.

“If you’re 70-and-up you should really, really, really, really, really want it,” Polis said.

Immediately, counties who had finished vaccinating their front line health care workers and nursing home residents jumped into action, planning drive-through vaccine clinics for seniors.

Eagle County invited residents to sign up for more than 500 slots in a series of public clinics for 70-and-up residents. Reservations filled up within minutes.

Large hospital systems, including UCHealth and Banner Health, began inviting a small number of patients who fell into the age group to get vaccinated.

But some providers haven’t moved forward as quickly.

Chana Goussetis, a spokeswoman with Boulder County Public Health, said her county is still working through vaccinating local health care workers before moving to its 70-and-up population.

“We really want to have one sort of provider for all folks who are 70-and-over so that it’s not confusing,” she said. “And what we’re thinking right now is it’s probably going to be our pharmacy partners, but we’re not sure. We have a lot to figure out with them as well.”

Gina McAfee, who lives in unincorporated Boulder County, has been waiting for weeks to hear if her mother’s independent living community in Louisville will be offering vaccines. Her mother, Loralie, is 92 and still hasn’t been told where to make an appointment.

Initially, McAfee thought her mom might be included in the very first group of vaccinations alongside nursing homes and assisted living residents. But she was wrong.

A facility manager told McAfee to check with Loralie’s primary care doctor. McAfee said she called her mother’s small family practice in Louisville, but they didn’t have any vaccines.

As a last resort, she registered her mother’s name on a Google form the county put out to notify residents about vaccine availability. She’s still waiting to hear something.

In the meantime, she said she’s talked to friends in their early 70s who have already gotten an appointment with their health care provider.

She said the situation has made her feel like some elderly Coloradans in independent living communities are “slipping through the cracks.”

“There’s just no way somebody 92 years old living in a communal living situation should be classified the same as somebody who is 70 years old, healthy and can easily isolate at home,” McAfee said. “It just shouldn’t have been that way.”

Matt Bloom
A staff member of Routt County's public health clinic holds a vial of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 24, 2020.

Relief could be coming

In a press conference last week, Gov. Polis acknowledged the vaccine rollout in the 70-and-up age group would take longer than expected. The new timeline, he said, was “70% of residents 70-and-older by the end of February.”

He said he hoped the state would wrap up most front line health care workers and nursing home residents by Jan. 15, which will then free up more supply for seniors.

More counties have also outlined their initial plans for vaccinating residents 70-and-up.

In a statement, Weld County said local health care providers were gearing up to offer more vaccines to seniors in the coming weeks.

“Phase 1 vaccinations will continue to occur over the winter months,” the county said. “As more vaccines become available, (the health department) will continue to focus on working with frontline workers and hospitals. Hospitals and health care agencies will work with the 70+ population.”

Larimer County also published a list of local providers beginning to schedule appointments with seniors.

John Santistevan, president and CEO of Salud Family Health Centers in Northern Colorado, said on Tuesday his clinics had already vaccinated more than 2,000 people 70-and-up.

In total, Salud clinics serve roughly 5,000 patients who fall in that age group. In the coming days, he expects Salud will make a “concerted effort” to contact even more people to set up their appointments.

“Our capacity keeps ramping up,” Santistevan said, speaking during a press conference alongside Gov. Polis. “It’s based on the supply of vaccines that’s available.”

In Longmont, Claire Sandford recently decided she’d had enough with navigating Kaiser’s website. She picked up her mother, Peggy, and drove her to a clinic in Longmont to try to register for an appointment in person.

Inside, staff told her they weren’t taking walk-in appointments. Instead, she should register online.

They walked her through the process, but she still left without a sense of when Peggy might get an appointment.

Now she’s waiting and hoping to hear something soon, checking social media for updates from the local health department and other providers.

She hopes Peggy, who’s been isolated mostly in her 500 sq. ft. apartment for going on 10 months now, can soon go back to visiting her favorite restaurants, Red Lobster and McDonald’s.

“I did tell her, I said, ‘You know I’ve been working on this and it is quite a process. I just need you to be patient a little longer,’” Sandford said.

More COVID-19 vaccine information resources:

Colorado has so far administered more than 220,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, mostly to front line health care workers and nursing home residents. That’s about 3% of the state’s total population. The state is compiling information about COVID-19 vaccines for residents on a centralized website.

Updates about vaccines in Larimer County are being posted here.

Updates about vaccines in Boulder County are being posted here.

Updates about vaccines in Weld County are being posted here.

Updates about vaccines in Broomfield County are being posted here.

Updates about vaccines in Denver County are being posted here.

Updates about vaccines in Eagle County are being posted here.