A week after Gov. Jared Polis declined to give Denver the immediate leeway to vaccinate the unhoused, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock asked a White House official to give vaccines directly to cities so they can better inoculate those experiencing homelessness and communities of color.
Released to the media by the city Friday afternoon, the letter was addressed to Jeffrey Zeints, President Joe Biden's coronavirus czar. It reiterates the same request that Hancock and mayors from other major cities made last month: that large cities be given direct access to the vaccine, bypassing the system of state-level distribution. The request — then and now — was motivated by Hancock and the other mayors' desire to better reach disadvantaged communities, they wrote, who've been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
"If cities and mayors are given some additional latitude, we can also address the needs of unique populations, including those who are experiencing homelessness and in numbers that are different from small towns," Hancock wrote, "and to ensure that local government employees are treated similarly to state and federal employees, and, finally, to improve the task of getting vaccines into the arms of our neighbors who are people of color and in communities that have seen terrible disparity in terms of COVID-19’s devasting (sic) impacts."
Hancock — as well as and other state-level officials — has spoken at length about the need to ensure that vaccines are readily available to communities of color, who've been infected and killed by COVID-19 at rates disproportionate to their size.
But there has been a public difference between Hancock and Polis when it comes to inoculating those experiencing homelessness. Though an original draft of the state's vaccine priority plan gave consideration to those staying in homeless shelters, the final plan — and the multitude of tweaks made since — did not include any preference or contemplation for those in shelters or the unhoused in general.
Polis has repeatedly been asked about that omission during his myriad press conferences, and he's repeatedly shot down any suggestion that those experiencing homelessness should be given more priority, despite data showing that they're at higher risk for hospitalization. He has said that the state is focusing on age-based risk factors rather than specific settings, like prisons or shelters. Still, prison and shelter care staff have both given vaccination priority, well above the people staying in their facilities.
Hancock said earlier this month that he'd asked Polis and the state to allow Denver to give priority to its unhoused population, specifically those living in shelters. But when he was asked by reporters about that request, Polis indicated he wouldn't be granting the request. At a press conference last week, he said it would cost lives to divert the vaccine to "younger, healthier people just because they happen to be homeless."
Hancock spokesman Michael Strott said the letter was "not at all" a direct response to Polis's decision not to accept Hancock's request.
"Mayor Hancock, as well as several other mayors from across the country, have been advocating for federal allocation of vaccines directly to cities for several weeks now so we can address the unique needs of our communities and bolster broader state-wide efforts, and the Mayor will continue to do so," Strott wrote in an email.
"Governor Polis is committed to saving lives and ending the pandemic as quickly as possible," his spokesman, Conor Cahill, said in an email. "The State has allotted 15% of its vaccine supply specifically for underserved communities and to date, has held nearly 60 vaccine clinics for communities of color and those facing the harshest impacts of COVID-19."
In his letter to the White House, Hancock wrote that Denver has a "detailed plan" to distribute the vaccine to disadvantaged communities. He has previously said that the city's health officials were preparing a plan to send vaccination teams into shelters and encampments.
The city "has a detailed plan that involves supporting broad distribution to the health care system, predictable place-based sites in the communities we know well and mobile vaccination teams for those who are eligible to receive the vaccine but are unable to easily get to fixed sites," he wrote. "As you and your team work to expand supply of the vaccine to keep up with demand, the need for a coherent and locally-driven equity strategy is even more important."
Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, from which Polis and other state officials have said they get their priority guidelines, does describe shelter staff as essential workers. It also notes that the residents of those facilities share the same risk of infection, though it stops short of directly advocating that the unhoused be given inoculation priority.
The vaccine advisory community "recognizes that increased rates of transmission have been observed in congregate living settings, including homeless shelters," CDC researchers wrote. "Based on local, state, or territorial epidemiologic and implementation considerations, jurisdictions may choose to vaccinate people who reside at congregate living facilities at the same time as the frontline staff because of their shared increased risk of disease."