‘Never waste a dose’: How Larimer County health care providers give out extra COVID vaccines

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LOVELAND — Susan Blanco got the call about 4:30 Wednesday afternoon, just as she was wrapping up the last of 90-plus cases on her court docket. Within an hour, she queued up for a coveted COVID-19 vaccine. 

Blanco, chief judge of the 8th judicial district in Larimer County, was among nearly 60 people who got an urgent call from the county health department to get to The Ranch by 6 p.m. for a vaccination. 

The county was going down its list of eligible health care and child care workers, essential front-line workers and others in the state’s Phase 1B.1 and 1B.2 who were told in advance they would be contacted if there were vaccine doses left over.

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On Wednesday, 57 people failed to show up for their scheduled appointments. 

Some were sick, some got shots elsewhere but forgot to cancel their appointment, others may have had a flu shot in the last 14 days, making them ineligible for the vaccine this week. 

Another hundred or so people got 24 hours notice their names had come up after the county received 200 additional doses on top of its usual 600 for the week. Including second doses, the county ended up with 100 extra slots. 

Nicole Myers talks with one of the drivers getting a COVID-19 vaccine the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the vaccination center set up in The Ranch in Loveland, Colo.

As chief judge, Blanco wasn’t considered as high priority as others in the judicial system. She was notified there was a shot with her name on it after other front-line judicial staff had a chance to register. 

“I flew out of the courthouse,” Blanco said as she waited in her car for one of 465 vaccines administered by county health workers Wednesday.

With limited vaccines to go around, the county and other health care systems are working hard to make sure no precious doses go to waste.

“Gov. Polis has said not to sit on anything,” said Katie O’Donnell, spokesperson for Larimer County Department of Health and Environment.

When people don’t show up for whatever reason, “we pull people from our 1B list of people who haven’t been added to a schedule yet,” she said. “They need to be available to get to the end of a clinic within an hour.”

O’Donnell said no vaccine has gone to waste. On Wednesday, the math worked out perfectly.

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The last available dose went into the arm of the driver in the last car. Had they not had the so-called waiting list from which to pull, the rush could have been on to find people to take the remaining doses.

That was the case earlier in the rollout as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines yielded more shots per vial than expected. Anyone in the vicinity at the time would be corralled to get the vaccine to avoid waste.

Stacy Pacheco, 44, was among the last in line at Wednesday’s vaccination clinic at The Ranch. She works at the Larimer County Justice Center and said she was happy to get the vaccine as jury trials get set to resume next week. 

“I left work as soon as I got the call,” Pacheco said. “We’ve done pretty good putting up barriers and sanitizing the courtrooms,” so she feels pretty safe at work. The vaccination adds one more layer of protection.

Being able to get the vaccine was “an amazing experience for us,” Blanco said. “To have the health district not let any vaccine go to waste and call us … it will allow us to get the judicial system going again.”

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Senite Tewahade watches Jon Rees prepare a COVID-19 vaccine the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the vaccination center set up in The Ranch in Loveland, Colo.

Having a system in place ahead of time allowed the justice center’s front-line staff to get notified of the vaccine before the back-of-house workers like judges, she said. 

“If they couldn’t reach you, they went to the next person. That’s how I ended up here today. I was in the building.” 

The state health department says it expects providers to carefully prepare their vaccine schedules to minimize the possibility they will have leftover doses. 

In the event providers have extra doses that could go to waste, “we want them to use the doses, even if that means providing it to someone outside the current phase,” the state said.

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Currently, each Pfizer vial yields about six doses; each Moderna vial has about 11.

On some occasions, there are doses left over after the last scheduled patient is vaccinated, said Kelly Tracer, spokesperson at UCHealth Northern Colorado. 

There’s a limited amount of time to administer the unused doses, so UCHealth provides them to unvaccinated staff members working at the clinic or they contact individuals in the current distribution phase who have said they could get to a clinic on short notice, she said. 

“One of our guiding principles is to never waste a dose. And so far, zero leftover doses have been wasted within UCHealth clinics from having extra doses at the end of the day,” Tracer said.  

More than 55,500 Larimer County residents had been vaccinated by Friday morning, according to the county health department, and UCHealth expected to administer more than 1,600 doses on Friday alone at Poudre Valley Hospital. 

UCHealth, Banner Health, Salud and the health department all work from lists compiled from eligible patients to receive extra doses that may remain at the end of the day. 

“We never let a dose go to waste,” said Laura Schwartz, the director of Salud Family Health’s Fort Collins Clinic, in an an email. “We have a list of people who have registered and who are able to come in at a moment’s notice, we go to our spreadsheet and call, and if there are patients in the building who are 70+ we ask them if they want the immunization. We have many people working on this to ensure we fill the slots.” 

Banner Health prepares its vaccine every day based on the number of scheduled appointments, said spokesperson Sara Quale. Schedulers manage the process “to ensure every prepared dose has a recipient.”

Extra doses at the end of the day are rare, she said, but Banner has a process in place in the event it happens. Quale declined to say what that process is. “We are committed to administering all usable doses of the vaccine so that no vaccine goes to waste.” 

All health systems and the county said it is imperative people cancel their existing appointments if they can’t make it or got their vaccinations elsewhere. Doing so ensures they can notify enough other recipients to fill those slots ensuring no vaccines go to waste. 

Benn Rocha, left, watches as he receives the COVID-19 vaccine from Josh Paiva the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the vaccination center set up in The Ranch in Loveland, Colo.

Larimer County COVID-19 vaccine data

  • 55,494: Doses received by residents
  • 38,386: Residents receiving first dose (11.0%)
  • 16,088: Residents vaccinated (4.5%) 
  • 22,948: Age 70+ residents at least one dose (57.5%)
  • 6,706: Age 70+ residents vaccinated (16.8%)
  • 14,356: White non-Latinx residents vaccinated (4.8%)
  • 528: Non-White non-Latinx residents vaccinated (3.2%)
  • 443: Latinx residents vaccinated (1.1%)
  • 762: Unknown race residents vaccinated 

Source: Larimer County Department of Health and Environment. Data is as of Friday morning.

Coloradoan reporter Kelly Lyell contributed to this report. 

Pat Ferrier is a senior reporter covering business, health care and growth issues in Northern Colorado. Contact her at patferrier@coloradoan.com. Please support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today.