Colorado’s low vaccination rates may complicate COVID-19 recovery

Scientists are poised to discover a vaccine. Will we use it?

(Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

The novel coronavirus is a mere 120 nanometers in diameter. That’s roughly 700 times smaller than the diameter of a single human hair. It’s hard to fathom something so small wreaking such big havoc, yet here we are, still facing unprecedented challenges caused by a tiny, spiky virus that as of eight months ago wasn’t even known to humans.

Unfortunately, no matter how small, COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon — even if 40% of Americans believe the worst is behind us. It’s not. It could be years before a full economic reopening, let alone recovery.

It’s important to remember that attempts to “flatten the curve” were never intended to end infections. Rather, they acted to slow the rate of transmission to conserve scarce resources and reduce deaths. Once the virus passed containment, ameliorating the full effect of COVID-19 was always set to require a massive feat of science, most likely in the form of a vaccine. Six months in, scientists are rising to the daunting challenge.

Developing a new vaccine is typically scaled in a matter of years, not months, with the fastest vaccine production to date measuring four years. Alas, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has confirmed that a widely available vaccine by the end of 2020 is simply not in the cards. Still, vaccine development is rapidly underway with two Phase III clinical trials in the United States, and it’s possible we could reach an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration by fall. While this is not an approval, it would extend use beyond clinical trials and expedite development. Extensive logistics for rapid production and distribution of a vaccine are underway accordingly, a key task that will be overseen by the winner of the presidential election this November.

But what good is a vaccine if people won’t use it?

Colorado is no stranger to vaccination debates. A persistent laxity in vaccine exemption laws has plagued Colorado into maintaining some of the worst vaccination rates in the nation — sometimes placing “dead last.” Some rates drop low enough that herd immunity thresholds are not reached, inciting localized outbreaks. In 2019, the Colorado Legislature seemed poised to pass a bill that would tighten vaccine exemptions, but the bill ultimately failed, in part due to pushback from the governor’s office. In 2020 a lighter version of the bill was passed. Adding insult to injury, the Colorado GOP has embraced anti-science, anti-vaccination voters, which serves to reinforce an extremely small, yet vocal, minority. A small minority may sound trivial, but when it comes to vaccine effectiveness, it’s not.

Complicating matters, national polls have demonstrated a paltry 50% of Americans are willing to use a COVID-19 vaccination upon availability, with another 25% uncommitted. While herd immunity rates required for a COVID-19 vaccine are currently unknown, most vaccines require notably higher than 50%, or 75%, optimistically — sometimes reaching up to 95% compliance. At this rate, vaccine noncompliance could serve to further perpetuate economic and public health impacts, perhaps taking years to reach herd immunity, complicating full and safe reopenings of businesses, tourism and schools. More worrisome, given Colorado’s poor track record of vaccinations, it’s a strong possibility that Colorado will be disproportionately affected compared to regions with higher vaccination compliance.

This raises the question — if the governor had known in 2019 that a global pandemic would approach within a year, would he have still pushed back against tightening Colorado’s vaccine exemptions laws? Certainly, the rationale for prompting a mask mandate in public indoor spaces is no different than the rationale for required vaccinations in public schools — both promote public health and safety at large, and noncompliance risks the wellbeing of others, particularly during COVID-19. Better yet, while acknowledging pandemic-related hurdles, what does it mean if a Democratic trifecta in the House, Senate and governor’s office couldn’t fiercely tighten vaccine exemptions amidst a global pandemic in 2020? Surely, this should be redressed next session, alongside strategies to increase early vaccine compliance via public health campaigns and enhanced coordination of sociological research.

No amount of science or vaccine development will ever compensate for the failed federal response to COVID-19, with over 157,000 Americans having paid the ultimate price. But without measures in place to increase local vaccine compliance immediately upon availability, Coloradans will continue to exacerbate an already fraught reopening. State leaders must work to expedite vaccine acceptance in our state — starting now.

Editor’s note: This commentary has been updated to reflect that a petition clause was removed from the final version of the vaccinations exemptions bill.