Lindsay Bazz fought back tears as she considered what it will mean to be vaccinated, not just for herself but for her students and her family.
“It’s just a big sense of relief,” the Jeffco Public Schools high school teacher said Saturday as she waited in a snaking line at a Kaiser Permanente facility in the south Denver suburbs. “I’ll just feel safer. I don’t want to be a carrier.”
Tens of thousands of Colorado educators have received their first COVID-19 vaccine shot since eligibility opened on Feb. 8. That includes 13,000 at mass vaccination events held at Kaiser facilities last weekend, as well as 4,000 at Centura Health locations, 2,900 at an event at the state fairgrounds in Pueblo, and 500 employees of the Mapleton district at North Suburban Medical Center.
But the process has been confusing at times, leaving many educators wondering when they’ll get their chance. Gov. Jared Polis promised to vaccinate most of the state’s 120,000 K-12 workers and child care staff over a three-week period, even as many people 70 and older, who have been eligible since Dec. 30, are still waiting for appointments.
“Where is the math?” one local public health official asked.
While some districts organized mass vaccination events, others encouraged employees to sign up on multiple waitlists. Child care providers flooded the state human services department with questions. The weekend before eligibility opened, Jeffco Public Schools sent an email to more than 14,000 employees about 200 surplus doses at an SCL Health clinic at the National Western Center, sparking a mad rush that snarled traffic. The district apologized, but the scramble enhanced a sense of scarcity.
The main source of confusion, health care leaders said, is the lack of consistent vaccine supply that in many cases makes it hard to schedule appointments more than a few days in advance.
“As educators or as 70-plus or health care workers or most anyone, you want to have a plan,” said Kelli Kane, chief operating officer of Kaiser Permanente. “What’s challenging about this vaccine distribution process is that it’s very difficult to plan.”
The text or email informing someone of an appointment is the last step in a complex process, Kane said. Each week, providers like Kaiser tell the state on Monday how many vaccine doses they want for the following week. On Friday, they learn how many doses they’ll actually get — always a much lower number.
Health providers spend the weekend determining appointment and staffing schedules after learning from state public health officials how many doses of each type of vaccine will go to which sites and which groups will be prioritized.
Only then do providers start pulling from their waitlists.
“While it appears like nothing’s happening, I’m not getting an email or a text, that’s the very last step,” Kane said. “All of this front end logistical work is going on to prepare for that last step.
“The worst thing would be to release appointments, build out a schedule, and then not have vaccine,” she added.
Last week, Polis announced Colorado would get 27,000 more doses than expected over a three-week period. This week, severe weather in the eastern part of the country delayed the arrival of 133,000 doses. State public health officials are hoping not to cancel appointments, but Kane said Kaiser expects to receive fewer doses.
In early February, Scott Bookman, Colorado’s COVID-19 incident commander, wrote a letter to superintendents promising to set aside 30,000 doses a week for educators but reiterating that older adults — ”still our most vulnerable population” — remain a priority.
“Please be patient with local public health agencies,” Bookman wrote.
Bookman also asked districts serving 5,000 or more students to prioritize eligibility among their staff members and plan to vaccinate one-third of them each week because there won’t be enough doses to meet the full need all at once.
Denver, the state’s largest district, secured 2,900 appointments the first week at Denver Health and Children’s Hospital Colorado for staff at its highest poverty schools. Jeffco, the second largest district, and others like Douglas County and Adams 12 told staff to sign up on multiple waitlists. Still others, like Mapleton, serving the northwest Denver suburbs, and Durango in southwest Colorado organized dedicated vaccine clinics.
In southern Colorado, Pueblo County Public Health offered nearly all of its weekly vaccine supply, roughly 2,900 doses, to employees of the Pueblo 60 and Pueblo 70 districts and local child care providers.
“We contacted both our school districts and said, ‘Hey, we think we can get your teams this weekend,” said Randy Evetts, public health director in Pueblo County.
Unlike the patchwork that characterizes the Denver metro area, the public health department has handled most vaccination there. Hospitals were still busy with COVID-19 cases and happy to let another organization take the lead. The county’s first mass vaccination event at the Pueblo Mall saw people lining up before dawn and waiting hours, but officials have developed a more-organized system since then in partnership with a wide range of community groups.
“People know that it’s happening and know where to go,” Evetts said. “It just depends on the community and the resources that they have. We didn’t have another option, so we just did it.”
Having one provider do most vaccinations means officials feel confident they’ve reached most older Puebloans who are interested, allowing them to offer an entire week’s supply to school staff.
Not all educators are jumping at the chance, though. The roughly 1,250 Pueblo 60 staff vaccinated last weekend represent slightly fewer than half the district’s total employees. In the Greeley-Evans district, just half of the staff responded to a survey on vaccine interest, though 78% of those said they were interested.
The district secured more than 700 appointments the first week, but roughly half of the staff turned them down, district spokeswoman Theresa Myers said.
“Part of that is timing of the appointments and clinics, which we are working on with providers,” she wrote in an email. “The other problem right now is some of the second vaccines are falling on our spring break, so staff don’t want to accept the appointments. We are working on it.”
Districts are also finding some employees need more help. In Denver, appointment slots were sitting unclaimed among employees who don’t use email much, like bus drivers, said Lauren Dunn, who heads the district’s vaccine efforts. Now the district is signing people up at bus terminals and other work sites.
Teachers are also getting vaccinated other ways, by registering on public portals or when pharmacies offer doses left over from no-shows earlier in the day.
“Yes, it’s going to look messy. I don’t know another way to explain it,” Jeffco Health Services Director Julie Wilken told the school board recently, expressing confidence that vaccination efforts will go “very quickly.”
Dr. Shauna Gulley, senior vice president and chief clinical officer of Centura Health, said educators are special because the state is setting aside doses specifically for them, even as supplies rise and fall.
“I would encourage people to be patient and trust the process,” she said. “One of the biggest worries is: Will there be enough vaccine for me? The state has assured there will be enough for every educator who wants it.”
Gulley, Kane, and others said the existence of multiple waitlists creates challenges for providers and consumers alike. They don’t know on any given day how many people got their shots elsewhere and how many are really in line. At the same time, they said signing up on all available lists is the best way to get the soonest available appointment.
Relief was the overwhelming emotion expressed by teachers, many of whom have been teaching in person for months, upon getting their first shot.
Jeffco high school teacher Brian Campbell wishes his district had communicated earlier with employees, just to let them know they were working on answers. But in the end, he still got an appointment the first week he was eligible. He let out a long, slow exhale as he described the feeling of seeing that text message.
“I don’t think I was overly stressed about COVID,” he said, “but the sheer relief after getting the appointment, clearly I cared about it more than I let on.”
Cameron Trainor, who teaches at an alternative high school in Aurora, described a mix of excitement and guilt as he waited in line for his first dose. He has felt relatively safe at school, but students have lost family members to COVID-19. Meanwhile, friends who face similar risks on the job are still weeks away from a chance at the vaccine.
More than anything, he’s looking forward to staying in the classroom.
“Once I’m vaccinated, I won’t have to be pulled away from my kids,” he said.
Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting.
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