Samaritan House homeless shelter denver

Gov. Jared Polis essentially ruled out giving more vaccine priority to those experiencing homeless, just 24 hours after Denver leaders again asked the state to allow them to dole out vaccines in shelters.

Polis has consistently eschewed changes to the state's vaccine priority that would give added emphasis to Coloradans living in congregant settings such as inmates, college students and those staying in shelters.

Though the priority list has changed repeatedly, including the complete removal of homeless, it's focused heavily on age-based priorities and is now moving toward vaccinating essential workers.

Polis has shown little appetite to put those in special circumstances above those not in those circumstances, despite inmates and those living in shelters facing outbreaks and congregant settings where isolation is more challenging.

There are several outbreaks in Colorado's homeless shelters, affecting scores of people staying in them. 

"It would cost lives to divert vaccine from people that are in their 70s to younger, healthier people just because they happen to be homeless," said Polis, who's already received his first dose, along with other state leaders. 

He emphasized -- as he has with inmates -- that those experiencing homelessness who are over 69 years old or who have certain health risk factors will be given priority along with those who aren't living in shelters. 

Polis' rejection of the request comes after a Denver homelessness task force sent him a memo outlining that those experiencing homelessness are more likely to be hospitalized, which -- members of the task force wrote -- places an added burden on the state's health care infrastructure. 

"There is an urgent need to vaccinate (people experiencing homelessness) and service provider staff to induce herd immunity to protect people at risk and prevent large outbreaks in congregate settings," the Denver Joint Task Force wrote in its memo to state officials.

"Prioritization of (people experiencing homelessness) will also benefit our Denver Metro region population by decreasing the rate of community transmission."

The task force wrote that as much as half of Denver's unhoused population are at high risk for serious illness, and a disproportionate share of them are minorities, who have also been affected by the pandemic beyond their demographic size.

"A total of 905 (people experiencing homelessness) have now contracted COVID-19 in Denver County, and 256 individuals have been hospitalized," the task force wrote. "Over the course of the pandemic, the hospitalization rate for cases who are (people living in homelessness) is 28%, which is 3x higher compared to the general public, which has a hospitalization rate of 9%." 

Polis suggested it would make more sense to vaccinate those experiencing homelessness when the state receives the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is a single-dose treatment that is still pending federal approval.

That way, he said, the state will have an easier time ensuring that population receives full protection instead of risking having to track down shelter residents for their second dose.

Even still, though, it doesn't appear likely Polis will make any changes to bump up those experiencing homelessness when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is available.

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