Denver pushes to prioritize homeless population for COVID-19 vaccine

DENVER — As vaccines roll out for vulnerable populations across the state, one vulnerable population — those experiencing homelessness — gained a strong public advocate.

The City of Denver is urging the state to include homeless populations in its grouping of vulnerable Coloradans in need of priority vaccine distributions.

“As more and more Denver residents become vaccinated against COVID-19, Mayor Michael B. Hancock and Denver officials continue to advocate for accelerating vaccine availability for people experiencing homelessness,” the statement reads. “With the hospitalization rate for people experiencing homelessness three times that of the general population, there is an urgent need to vaccinate people experiencing homelessness and service provider staff to induce herd immunity.”

The idea has significant support from Denver’s homeless advocates and social workers, who said the city’s homeless population is struggling from COVID outbreaks. According to the city, there are “an estimated 6,151 guests and staff of shelters, unsheltered people living in encampments and service providers across Denver.”

“You are not going to contain an outbreak among all of those people, if they’re all sleeping in the same space, by picking and choosing who you vaccinate,” said Cathy Alderman of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “The city is asking for the flexibility, which we absolutely support.”

Denver residents online had mixed reactions to the idea when asked in a Denver7 poll.

“I am a staff member at a homeless shelter and just got my first dose today,” one person said. ” In my opinion we should have been in phase one.”

“No! We have to stick to the plan!! Elderly and medically vulnerable,” said another. “We have to get seniors safe first.”

There is still disagreement, however, on who in Denver’s homeless population can be identified as vulnerable.

Statistically, residents living in shelters are much more vulnerable to infection than those living on the streets. But in the statement from the city, Hancock advocated for all of Denver’s homeless to gain priority.

“This location-based prioritization strategy would allow all people at a shelter, motel, managed campsite or unsanctioned encampment to receive the vaccine at the same time, regardless of age,” the statement reads.

Some advocates, however, believe the most important push should be to vaccinate residents of shelters where the spread is the most likely.

“While we would love to see more planning take place for people that are sleeping outside, or that are in encampments, we’re really focused on these congregate settings where the virus can spread very quickly,” Cathy Alderman said. “This [vulneraility] really is specific to people who are living in sheltered environments.”

Regardless of where Coloradans fall in this debate, the reality of Colorado’s vulnerable homeless populations is hard to ignore.

“We have a high rate of people that are at high risk to negative consequences from COVID-19,” said Britta Fisher, the executive director of Denver Department of Housing Stability. “We have seen great eagerness from people experiencing homelessness to get vaccinated.”

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