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'Stuck In This Cycle Forever': Some Coloradans Worry Vaccine Hesitancy Will Block Herd Immunity

 A sign at Denver International Airport warns travelers not to get too close to one another in the train because of the coronavirus.
A sign at Denver International Airport warns travelers not to get too close to one another in the train because of the coronavirus.

The visible signs of a deadly pandemic are fading quickly inside the state Capitol.

Staff have removed the yellow caution tape that blocked the basement cafeteria for many months. Swarms of lobbyists and tourists are back. And people like Brett Frizzell are even taking off their masks deep inside the poorly ventilated building that historians once labeled a “disease breeding ground.”

“I've done both doses of Moderna, and so, you know, I'm following the guidelines that they're trying to set forth for us,” Frizzell said.

The Commerce City resident was at the Capitol on Tuesday to testify on a bill that has nothing to do with the coronavirus. He’s among the more than 2.3 million Coloradans fully vaccinated against the virus.

“So, if they're saying I'm safe now, that's where I have to listen to,” he said.

But many scientists believe Colorado is still well over a million doses away from reaching its goal of herd immunity, or 78% immunized.

A few months ago, people were scrambling to get vaccine appointments. Today, the pace has slowed. And officials are trying to entice people to get inoculated with free beers and even Broncos cheerleaders at vaccination sites.

Gov. Polis even said “stay tuned” when asked Thursday on Twitter[J1] what he thought of other states starting to give vaccinated people a chance to win a million dollars in a lottery.

The pressure campaign isn’t working for Karl Watson, a property manager in Telluride.

“I don't feel that it benefits community-wide for me to be vaccinated,” he said earlier this month.

Watson says he already had COVID-19, and test show he still antibodies to fight against it. And even if they go away – he’s still reluctant to get vaccinated.

“So for me, it was more a dual combination of having the antibodies and a bit of a reluctancy to be a guinea pig for something new,” he said. “I don't feel like the argument that we have to keep each other safe is a necessarily valid argument.”

In Cortez, Stephen Lomis is also declining the shot despite his perception of being at a higher risk from the virus as a smoker and a quadriplegic.

“I’m just unsure of it. And I was always iffy about flu shots and all that,” he said. “You know, it's not a long-term study (on the vaccines). So I’m really iffy.”

But Laura Turk and her family in Buena Vista are worried those who are declining the shot will end up hurting everyone.

“There is a concern that especially the populations that need it the most might be reticent to get the vaccine and that will be stuck in this cycle forever,” she said.

Asked why she chose to get the vaccine, Turk said it was “the right thing to do.”

In the nearby town of Ridgeway, retired Dentist Don Schwartz is also worried about others, but especially the tourists who will soon be coming to the area.

“I'm very concerned that people are not stepping up and having this done. It’s so easy,” he said. “There's not a problem. Most people (who get vaccinated), almost no symptoms. And the concern in Ouray County is simply as we get a lot of people coming in this summer. And so that's a concern.”

But even with mask mandates lifted in Colorado – people who are fully vaccinated are still approaching things with an abundance of caution.

Pete Kolbenschlag, of Delta County, is starting to venture out more, despite only 40% of his county being inoculated.

“It's nice to see activity picking back up,” he said. “I've been out to eat a few times. I've been to the brewpub and doing some things like that. So that's great.”

While Bronwyn Barry, who lives on the Lambourne Mesa near Paonia, is taking it slowly.

“I am paying attention to what hopefully will be an increased likelihood of herd immunity in the near future,” she said. “But I'm not venturing out into crowded areas. I'm not going to big parties, just being sensible for somebody my age, which is 65.”

As of May 19, less than a quarter of Colorado’s 64 counties have vaccinated enough people to be close to achieving herd immunity. State data shows rates are higher in places like Denver and Boulder, where vaccination rates fall between 60% to 70% of the eligible population.

But others, including Washington County on the Eastern Plains, have inoculated less than a third of eligible residents.

This story was produced with support from our partners in Rocky Mountain Community Radio. Reporters contributing interviews included Julia Caulfield and Matt Hoisch from KOTO in Telluride, Gavin Dahl and Kate Redmond from KVNF in Paonia and Lucas Brady Woods from KSJD in Cortez.

Copyright 2021 KUNC