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Some Colorado residents age 70 and older struggling to sign up for COVID-19 shots

Kelly Lyell
Fort Collins Coloradoan

Phone calls that end with busy signals or are never answered, websites that require computers, smartphones, email addresses and internet connectivity to access: That’s how Colorado asked residents age 70 and older to register and schedule appointments for COVID-19 vaccines when they were made a priority in January.

While many of those eligible for a vaccine managed to navigate the system and get their first doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, others are still trying to figure out when and where they’ll be able to get a potentially life-saving vaccine.

Joyce Metier, 92, said she doesn't have a computer anymore and isn't always sure what the instructions are asking her to do when she calls into phone numbers that are answered by automated attendants. And she generally doesn't answer phone calls from numbers she doesn't recognize.

She finally got onto waiting lists for the COVID-19 vaccine with help from family members, who signed her up and check her missed calls and voicemails daily. She was still waiting Friday for notification that her name had come up on one of the lists so she could schedule an appointment to receive her first shot.

"I'm fortunate to have family here who can help me," she said. "I have friends who don't have family at home, and older people often are not as good with the new technology, so they have a hard time following directions and knowing what to do and who to contact."

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The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment launched a vaccine call center in late January, 877-268-2926 (877-CO-VAX-CO), to give residents a centralized source of information. But callers won’t be able to get on a list to receive a vaccine by calling that number, said Scott Bookman, the state health department’s COVID-19 incident commander. They’ll simply be given a list of phone numbers and websites of providers offering the vaccine in their region.

“It’s one additional tool in our toolbox to provide answers to people,” Bookman said. “We know that not everybody has tech savvy, we know that navigating a website, navigating a portal is not always the easiest for people to access a system. … So we understand that frustration. We’re doing all we can to continue providing all these different points of access, and our providers are providing these signups, and many of them are then using a lottery system that when it is your time, you’ll get a notification.”

More lists, more chances for vaccination

Many of those who have managed to get appointments did so by signing up with multiple providers. In Larimer County, COVID-19 vaccines are being administered by Banner, UCHealth, Estes Park Health, Salud Family Health Clinic and, as of this week, some Safeway and King Soopers pharmacies. CVS and Walgreens are also administering vaccines in the county, but so far only to residents of skilled nursing and rehabilitation hospitals and other assisted-living and long-term care centers through a federal contract, Larimer County Health Director Tom Gonzales said Jan. 26.

Larimer County has a dedicated phone line, 970-498-5500, that is answered from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, and a website portal through larimer.org/health where residents can get on a list that all providers in the county offering vaccines are pulling names from through their various random selection processes, Gonzales said.

“We can just fill that out for folks when they call,” spokeswoman Kori Wilford said. “We love talking to people and taking those calls, and we’re able to get that (online) form up pretty quickly and sign people up that way.”

Wayne Brown, 71, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from medical assistant Carolina Aldana at Salud Family Health in Fort Collins, Colo. on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

The more lists you’re on, the sooner you’re likely to be selected to schedule an appointment.

Carl Spina, 78, and his wife, Karen, 72, signed up with Banner, UCHealth and Salud after what they said were about three weeks of confusion trying to navigate the process.

They were watching televised coverage of President Joe Biden’s inauguration when they got the call that they could get their shots the next day at Salud’s Fort Collins clinic.

“In the moment that President Biden was talking about 100 days and 100 million doses, the phone rang,” Carl said Thursday at Salud after he and his wife had each received their first doses of the Moderna vaccine.

“It was serendipitous; I think it was meant to be,” Karen said.

Appointments for receiving a second dose four weeks later are made when patients receive the first dose, center director Laura Schwartz said.

Vaccine line:Colorado opens call center to provide COVID-19 vaccination information

Salud was administering 160 shots per day at its Fort Collins clinic two weeks ago, she said, and was expecting to get enough doses this week to administer 180 to 200 per day. Through Jan. 25, Salud had given 8,358 COVID-19 shots statewide, including 1,136 in Fort Collins. Of those doses, 7,053 statewide and 1,031 locally went to people ages 70 and older, said Salud’s development director, Ashley Miller.

Banner Health is administering about 100 shots a day at its health center in southeast Fort Collins, officials there said, and had given more than 100,000 shots of COVID-19 vaccines across its six-state system as of Jan. 26, spokeswoman Sara Quale said. Banner wasn’t able to say how many of those had gone to Colorado residents or people ages 70 and over. Banner schedules appointments to receive the second dose when the first dose is administered.

UCHealth had administered more than 85,200 doses statewide as of Jan. 26, with 32,000 of those going to people 70 and older, spokeswoman Kelly Tracer said. She wasn’t able to say how many of those shots had been administered through specific locations, including Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland.

Patients signing up for vaccine appointments with UCHealth schedule both the first and second doses at the same time.

Larimer progresses on vaccination goal

Larimer County has about 41,000 residents ages 70 and older, Gonzales said, and about 12,000, or 29%, had received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Jan. 26. The county, he said, receives about 6,500 doses a week from the state through its allocation of the federal supply but could easily administer more than twice that many doses, if they were available.

The county is hoping to meet the governor’s goal of vaccinating 70% of Coloradans ages 70 and older by the end of February but might miss that mark by a week or so if the vaccine supply is not increased.

People 70 and older make up 9.6% of the state’s population and account for 78% of the 4,4928 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in Colorado through Sunday, according to the state health department’s COVID-19 dashboard. People age 80 and older who contract COVID-19 have an 8.2% chance of dying, Polis said during a Jan. 12 news conference. Those ages 75-79 have a 3.2% chance of dying, and those ages 70-74 have a 1.2% chance of dying, he said.

“It’s such an important population,” Gonzales said. “I mean, heck, 80% of our deaths have been in this population; it’s tragic. So we want to get a vaccine in everybody’s arm that’s willing to get it.”

Larimer County, Gonzales said, is working with its Office of Aging, Meals on Wheels, senior centers and other organizations to figure out ways to get vaccines to eligible people who are homebound. The county currently has its logistics staff working on ways to get the vaccine distributed equitably throughout the county by providing transportation to and from vaccination providers, when necessary, and getting the vaccine to places where those who are eligible already gather.

Larimer and Weld counties’ health departments are working together with regional health care providers and the state to secure the necessary doses to open a mass vaccination site for residents of both counties in late February, Gonzales said.

About 90,000 Colorado residents, almost exclusively health care and first responders dealing directly with COVID-19 patients, had received a second dose as of Tuesday, according to the state health department’s vaccine dashboard.

On screen:Documentary shines light on COVID-19 in Fort Collins' Hispanic community

Both the state and county health departments said they have no concerns about having enough vaccine available for people 70 and older to receive second doses at the prescribed time — three weeks after the first dose for the Pfizer vaccine and four weeks after the first dose for the Moderna vaccine.

Judee Sebastian said she was thrilled when Banner called last week and scheduled an appointment for her 98-year-old mother, Veronica Erickson, to get her first dose, which was administered Friday in Fort Collins.

“I didn’t think anybody was getting it, but I guess a lot of people are,” Erickson said.

Erickson said she baked cookies for Thomas Edison — her father worked for him — as a young girl growing up in New Jersey and drove German prisoners around Fort Riley in Kansas in a 10-wheel truck to pick up and deliver laundry during World War II.

She said the shot of the Moderna vaccine in her upper arm felt no different than dozens of others she has received in her lifetime.

Dr. Paul Mayer speaks to Teddie Maphet, 92, before she receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Salud Family Health in Fort Collins, Colo. on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

Because her primary care is through Banner, she was already on the provider’s list and didn’t have to sign up specifically to receive a vaccine. They called her to schedule the appointment, Sebastian said, when Erickson’s name came up on the list of those who could receive the vaccine.

Others, though, have struggled plenty with the process.

Tom DiBenedetto, 73, said he waited to get information from UCHealth, his primary provider, and when he didn’t hear from them, he started calling others, including Salud. He finally got through after several days of trying to schedule an appointment that then had to be canceled when the Fort Collins clinic didn’t get its expected allotment of vaccine.

He finally got his first shot Thursday at Salud.

“My husband got called by UCHealth a month ago, and I was waiting for about a month for them to call me,” Sandra Dorrell, 78, said. “And finally, about a week ago, I started doing all the others, Banner, Salud."

She received her first dose last Thursday at Salud, a few hours before her husband, Doyle, 84, was scheduled to receive his first dose at UCHealth’s Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland during that appointment he had set up a month earlier.

February data:Larimer County and Colorado COVID-19 case, vaccine and hospital data

“I’m really excited to get it,” Sandra said. “I haven’t been on an airplane in almost a year; everything was canceled. We missed graduations, we missed weddings, we missed all of that.”

She and others who were vaccinated last week at Salud realize their vaccines won’t be fully effective until seven to 10 days after they receive their second doses next month. And they understand they’ll still be asked to maintain their social distance from others, wear facial coverings and thoroughly wash their hands often until enough people are vaccinated to reach herd immunity. The vaccines protect people from contracting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 but not necessarily from spreading it, health officials have said.

“This is the only way we’re going to really stop the pandemic,” Jeff Powell said after he and his wife, Judy, both 71, received their first doses. “We’ve got to get vaccinated.”

Correction: The number of vaccines administered by Banner Health in Colorado and throughout its system was incorrect in an earlier version of this story, because of a source error.

Contact Coloradoan reporter Kelly Lyell at kellylyell@coloradoan.com, follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.