Vaccines won’t significantly affect COVID-19 hospitalizations for ‘several months’

Gov. Polis: State plans to complete immunizations for people 70 and older by end of February

Ola Arije, left, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Army Veteran Phil Ross, 73, at Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons in Aurora, Colorado on Tuesday, December 22, 2020. Ross is the first senior received the vaccine in Colorado. Residents and staff of the Fitzsimmons veterans facility is among the first seniors in the state to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

As of Jan. 7, 154,271 Coloradans had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech or the vaccine from Moderna. That equates to around 2.7% of the state’s total population.

The vaccines aren’t enough — at least not yet — to make a dent in coronavirus transmission.

“Social distancing (and) mask wearing really continue to be more important and have a greater impact on hospitalizations than (the vaccine),” state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said at a news conference Jan. 8.

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COVID-19 hospitalizations began to decline after peaking Dec. 1 at 1,847 people. By Jan. 8 the figure had dropped to 833, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. About 10 days prior to that peak, a public health order had kicked in banning indoor dining and prohibiting multi-household gatherings in many counties.

It will probably take “several months” before Colorado sees “as clear an impact from the vaccine on our number of hospitalizations” as that of mask wearing and social distancing, Herlihy said.

Vaccine takes weeks to work after first dose

That tracks with what another health expert told Newsline last month.

Even if Colorado were able to initially vaccinate upwards of 300,000 people — who would require two doses each of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine — the effect of vaccination would be substantial but “less impactful than we would hope,” Andrea Buchwald, infectious disease epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health, said via email Dec. 17.

Buchwald works with the Colorado COVID-19 Modeling Group to project the virus’s spread in the state and estimate how many people are contagious, immune or susceptible to infection at any given time.

“There’s a lag time between when the individuals are vaccinated and when they actually start to become immune, so the impact of vaccination won’t actually even begin with the first few people to be visible in the models until late January, at best,” she said in a Dec. 16 interview.

At the time, Buchwald was still making calculations based on the federal government’s goal to have 20 million doses administered before the end of the year, which would have meant about 335,000 doses for Colorado. But the nation fell far short of that goal.

Even after a patient receives both doses of a vaccine, it takes several more days for them to receive the full amount of protection that the vaccine provides.

Also important to note: The two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are spread three weeks apart, and the Moderna vaccine doses are spread four weeks apart. Even after a patient receives both doses of a vaccine, it takes several more days for them to receive the full amount of protection that the vaccine provides.

Buchwald pointed out that it’s unclear whether vaccinated people can still transmit the virus to another person, but current modeling doesn’t account for that possibility.

Vaccines have the effect of contributing to herd immunity, a needed threshold for communities to reach in order to achieve the end of the pandemic. Health experts predict herd immunity will kick in when around 70% of a population has antibodies that defend the immune system from coronavirus infection.

Colorado’s COVID-19 Modeling Group predicted Dec. 16 that close to 20% of the state’s population had been infected, protecting them against the virus. However, it’s still unclear how long that protection lasts. Because the COVID-19 vaccines are so new, scientists don’t know yet how long their protection will last, either.

Older seniors can sign up online for vaccine notifications

The state is currently working to vaccinate people in phases 1A and 1B of its vaccination plan. Phase 1A includes health care workers who treat COVID-19 patients as well as residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

Phase 1B recently swelled to encompass a wide swath of essential workers ranging from police officers to teachers. But the first-priority groups in phase 1B are health care workers and emergency responders; firefighters, police, COVID-19 response personnel, correctional staff, and funeral services workers; and people age 70 and older.

At the Jan. 8 news conference, Gov. Jared Polis said the state’s goal was to finish vaccinating people 70 and older by the end of February. That’s a big ask: According to federal data from the American Community Survey, Colorado is home to approximately 551,000 people who are 70 and older.

Those older seniors who are long-term care facility residents are set to receive vaccine doses through the federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, whereby CVS and Walgreens are working to immunize people on-site.

Outside long-term care, seniors whose contact information is stored by certain health care providers, such as UCHealth or Kaiser Permanente, could soon be notified by those providers when vaccine doses are available.

“There currently is not enough vaccine to provide it to everyone, even within the phase 1 groups,” Jean Kutner, UCHealth University of Colorado chief medical officer, said in a blog post on the hospital system’s website. “So to offer the vaccine as fairly as possible, UCHealth is randomly selecting patients who are 70 years old or older to receive invitations.”

People who aren’t patients with UCHealth can also sign up to join the random selection process for vaccination appointments at uchealth.org/covidvaccine. Those younger than 70 can sign up, too, but they won’t be invited to schedule a vaccination appointment until Colorado enters phase 3 — which probably won’t happen until the summer.

Kaiser Permanente offers a way for people 70 or older to sign up for an e-visit online. Once they do so, Kaiser will hold their place in the “virtual line” until doses are available.

Meanwhile, Centura Health is prioritizing its vaccine supply for existing patients. Those patients don’t have to schedule an appointment, but they will receive invitations via email or through the MyCenturaHealth patient portal as doses are available.

According to its website, Centura Health is working on a plan to make doses available to other community members and will post those details online when they’re available.

People who are 70 and older but aren’t sure where to get the vaccine should call their health care provider or a community clinic. CDPHE also has a list of additional resources on its website.

People with questions about the vaccine can call the toll-free Colorado Health Emergency Line for the Public — CO HELP for short — at 303-389-1687 or 877-462-2911. The phone line is available weekdays from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with answers in multiple languages.

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