Delta County

State-border jumpers can get vaccinated in Colorado — even if no one’s happy about it

In Aspen, a group of 20 Brazilians planned to hang out in a rented vacation home in the picturesque ski town for a few weeks this winter while they got two rounds of coronavirus vaccine. 

In Delta County, tucked in the western Colorado mesas, gobs of people from Michigan and Texas have signed up for vaccine appointments — most likely because they were confused and thought they were registering in Delta County, Michigan, or Delta County, Texas.

And in Steamboat Springs, locals are pointing fingers at second-home owners who buzzed into town to collect a shot, concerned that those part-time Routt County residents might have jumped ahead in line.

This all is perfectly fine, according to state officials. 

According to the state’s rules, it doesn’t matter what county, state or even country a person lives in when they sign up for a vaccine appointment, as long as they meet the criteria for Colorado’s current phase in the immunization priority list.

Colorado is not requiring identification, proof of address or proof of citizenship to get a vaccine — the state does not want to add any barriers to those whose turn is up, Gov. Jared Polis said Tuesday. Besides, Coloradans who live on the edges of the state are driving across the borders to Wyoming, Texas and elsewhere to get vaccinated. Polis figures it all evens out.

“There’s folks in northern Colorado that have probably gone to Cheyenne,” he said during a news conference. “There’s folks in Cheyenne that have probably come back to northern Colorado. In the southwest, in New Mexico, both ways.”

Vaccines going to out-of-state residents are a small fraction of the more than 559,938 doses dispensed in Colorado as of Tuesday. Of those vaccinated so far, 5,475 people listed an out-of-state address, or fewer than 1%. 

Vail Health Hospital pharmacy technician Rob Brown practices measuring the exact dosage for a mock Covid-19 vaccine in the sterile compounding room in the pharmacy in December in Vail. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

And it’s unknown how many of those out-of-state residents are health care workers and traveling nurses who are in Colorado to help hospitals handle the surge of patients during the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, the numbers of non-Colorado residents isn’t concerning, the governor said, though state officials will continue to watch. “We certainly want to keep our eyes on it to make sure it doesn’t become a systemic issue,” Polis said.

State officials are more concerned that eligible people are able to receive the vaccine and have even issued warnings to vaccine providers that turned people away based on county of residence. Polis said those violations are mostly the result of individual mistakes or miscommunication. Providers have been willing to fix the problems when notified, he said.

“There have not yet had to be sanctions because we have not found any violations that are ongoing and systemic,” Polis said.

Though providers sometimes collect the information, people who receive a vaccine in Colorado aren’t required to provide any address at all. 

“Colorado’s focus on vaccine equity means there may be vulnerable communities who won’t want to share their address or location with us,” a state health department spokesperson told The Sun.

Brazilian “vaccine tourists” and Delta County, Michiganders

In Delta County, public health officials noticed a “ton of people” from Michigan and some from other states, including Texas, signing up online on the county’s master vaccination list of about 2,462, said Darnell Place-Wise, the county’s public information officer. 

At first, county officials were notifying those out-of-state folks that they could stay on the list, but they would be at the bottom, no matter if they fit the criteria of older than 70 or a frontline worker. “If a neighboring county person is on the list and they reach the top, we’re happy to give them an appointment,” Place-Wise said Monday. “But someone from Michigan, they are not going to be a priority at all.” 

Later that day, however, Place-Wise said the county received word from the state health department that they could not turn anyone away if they met the vaccine priority criteria — no matter where they live. 

“As we literally just received this information, Delta County will need to re-evaluate our list and vaccine distribution,” she said. 

Even so, Delta County doesn’t expect to get flooded by people from Michigan, Texas, or even Delta, Utah, because the county figures they signed up in Colorado by accident. 

Hundreds attended an Easter sunrise serivce at the Tru Vu Drive In theater in Delta on Sunday April 12, 2020. (Photo by William Woody)

Public officials hope that’s the case, because so far, the county of about 30,000 people isn’t receiving enough vaccine to meet the governor’s goal of vaccinating 70% of people 70 and older by the end of February, Place-Wise said. 

So far, they’re only at 28%, she said. 

In Pitkin County, home to Aspen, public health officials thwarted a plan by a group of “vaccine tourists” from Brazil who had planned to rent a mountain home for the purpose of getting the vaccine. The county learned of the plan from a Bloomberg News reporter, and then public health officials found 20 members of the group who had signed up on the county’s vaccine appointment list. 

They were not offered the required link to sign up for an appointment, county spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said.

But now, with clearer guidance from the state health department signaling that country of residence doesn’t matter, the county is in a tricky spot, Trulove said. She wonders what will happen this summer when more vaccine is available and Aspen is full of tourists. 

Pitkin County public health officials haven’t tried to keep track of second-home owners but have asked that when people get a first dose of vaccine, they commit to receiving the second dose in the county. That means people would either have to stay in the area for at least three weeks, or travel back for their second appointment.

The county has 17,700 permanent residents, but more than 40,000 when it counts second-home owners, commuters and overnight visitors, Trulove said. So far, the county’s three vaccine sites have given 3,179 doses. 

Confusion over second-home owners continues

At the start of the vaccine rollout, several mountain communities were unsure about whether to allow nonpermanent residents to make appointments, and in some counties, the confusion persists.

In early January, Summit County announced that second-home owners were not eligible to make an appointment, noting that the county’s vaccine allotment was based on its year-round population.

In Routt County, public health officials have allowed second-home owners to get the vaccine, but then received backlash from locals who thought it was unfair. The county said this week that even though county residency is not required, they are “prioritizing vaccine to our county residents and if supply allows, we will be able to vaccinate others that have filled out our interest form and fall in the current prioritization levels,” Public Health Director Roberta Smith said in an email to The Sun prior to Polis’ Tuesday news conference. 

The county’s public health nurse, Brooke Maxwell, said it makes sense to vaccinate part-time residents who have the possibility of contracting COVID-19 and getting hospitalized locally, or spreading it to others. 

“If they are going to be here for several months and could potentially end up in our hospital systems then it would be appropriate for someone to receive a vaccine here,” she said.

Gov. Jared Polis gestures a sign of approval before he signs for delivery for the state’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Dec. 14 in Denver. (David Zalubowski, The Associated Press)

And in southwest Colorado, an online vaccine sign-up form produced by the public health department for Hinsdale and Mineral counties requires people to provide their addresses.

“Our vaccine allocation is based on population numbers and proof of address and age will be requested at the time of vaccination,” the form states. “If Hinsdale or Mineral county are not your primary residence, please sign up for the vaccine at your primary county of residence.”

It is unclear if the counties are actually following through on this policy, which goes against state rules. A call to Silver Thread Public Health, which covers both counties, was not returned. Sign-up forms at several other small-county health departments reviewed by The Sun do not require an address.

State guidance has been unclear, not just on addresses

The varied responses from public health directors are the result of unclear or conflicting state guidance — and not just regarding proof of address. 

Jefferson County, for example, wants to limit the vaccine to eligible categories such as health care workers and people above 65, but there is little mandatory verification

“We ask for verification of whichever phase they are in. If they qualify for a phase based on their age, they can provide their ID or state their age verbally. If they are a health care worker, we ask them to provide proof of employment, whether that be a badge, letter, pay stub, etc.,” senior public engagement coordinator Nikki Work said in a written statement. 

Nor does Jeffco interrogate patients about what county or state they are from.

“We do not require people to be from Jeffco to get vaccinated, nor do we ask for proof of address. If they align with the phases being vaccinated, we will vaccinate them,” she said. 

Race and ethnicity questions are even more delicate. State and local officials seek such responses so that they can more fairly distribute vaccines, as COVID-19 death statistics and early vaccination reports have shown large fairness gaps. People of color in Colorado are more likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus, and so far are less likely to get the vaccine than their representation in the overall population.

Jeffco’s epidemiology department said that so far, about 16% of vaccine seekers have declined to offer their race or ethnicity, while only 0.2% have declined to state their gender. 

Dr. Isabelle Amigues administers the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Steve Alexander during a drive-through vaccine clinic in the parking lot of National Jewish Health on Jan. 29 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Eagle County’s public release on moving into the 65 to 69 years phase of vaccinations stated that those receiving the vaccine will be asked to attest they are eligible and available for both doses. Eagle County officials did not return requests for further comment. 

Julie Lonborg, a senior vice president at the Colorado Hospital Association, said hospitals have heard scattered rumors of people who have traveled from out of state to get vaccinated in Colorado.

“There’s really not a lot we can do about that and hope those numbers are small,” she said.

The logistics of such a feat are complicated, making it more likely that inoculations of vaccine tourists are rare, she said. Appointments are difficult to get and not available in large blocks. It’s extremely unlikely that a busload of people from another state could roll into Colorado and all get appointments at the same time.

And, like state officials, she said imposing proof-of-residency requirements would likely do more harm than good by making it tougher for Coloradans to get vaccinated.

“We don’t want barriers to people being able to get a vaccine,” she said.

Staff writers Lucy Haggard and Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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