Gov. Jared Polis asked the state Board of Health on Tuesday to quickly mandate COVID-19 vaccines for Colorado’s health care workers, an action he had all but ruled out less than three weeks ago.

Colorado officials also announced that state employees working in 24-hour facilities, including prisons and state-run veterans homes, would have to get their shots in the coming months — or find somewhere else to work.

In late July, Polis had said he wouldn’t require state employees to get vaccinated, though anyone who chose not to would need to wear a mask at work and submit to regular testing. That stance largely mirrored the federal government’s softer mandate, which added annoyances for unvaccinated employees but stopped short of firing those who wouldn’t get the shot.

Denver already has required private-sector health care workers in the city to get vaccinated, as have a number of major health systems operating in Colorado.

In a letter his office distributed to news organizations, Polis said the spread of the coronavirus’s delta variant and concerns about losing workers if vaccine requirements remained a patchwork drove his request.

The nursing home industry had raised concerns that direct-care workers would leave if only some health care settings required vaccines, and Polis said leaders in other parts of the health industry had asked for a comprehensive mandate.

“These are settings in which we have a responsibility to keep people safe who have little choice about their presence there. It’s critical that all personnel who are capable of bringing the deadly virus into facilities where our vulnerable populations are in their custody be fully vaccinated in order to save lives,” Polis said in the letter to the State Board of Health.

The governor asked the board to pass new rules quickly enough to require anyone working with patients in Colorado health care settings to get vaccinated by Sept. 30, which would be an unusually fast turnaround. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether the board intended to consider a possible mandate for health workers.

A statement from Polis’s office said he could still issue a mandate if necessary, but he wanted to return to “more normal means” of responding to the pandemic, such as agencies making rules. The governor repealed the state’s disaster emergency declaration in July.

Colorado already requires direct-care employees in most health care settings to get the annual flu shot.

The city of Denver requires most health care workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Organizations that have either mandated the shot or placed additional requirements on those who don’t get it include UCHealth, Banner Health, Denver Health, Children’s Hospital Colorado, SCL Health, Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, National Jewish, Boulder Community Health and Kaiser Permanente.

The state health department, Colorado Department of Corrections and Department of Human Services issued a list of state workers who would now be required to get vaccinated, including:

  • Employees, contractors and others working in the state’s adult and youth correctional facilities, as well as the state’s long-term care facilities for veterans. This includes temporary staff.
  • Volunteers and visitors to state prisons (with some latitude for extenuating circumstances) and people who work with those on parole
  • State employees (such as administrators) who may visit 24-hour facilities but don’t work there every day
  • Anyone working in the health department’s Disease Control and Public Health Response Division, including the state lab and Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response
  • Anyone whose job involves face-to-face contact with people who have compromised immune systems

Health department and Department of Corrections employees will have to get their first shot by Sept. 30 and complete their vaccination by Oct. 31. The Department of Human Services is scheduling the shots so employees will be fully vaccinated between Oct. 31 and Nov. 26.

The heads of the three agencies pointed to vaccination as the best strategy for avoiding outbreaks, particularly since the highly contagious delta variant now accounts for nearly all cases in Colorado. About 59% of Department of Corrections employees and 77% of people in direct-care jobs for the Department of Human Services are fully vaccinated.

“Some people will say that it is a personal choice whether or not they want to get vaccinated, but it is very difficult to socially distance in congregate settings, and inmates do not have a choice regarding where they live and who they come in contact with,” Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams said in a news release. “An individual who can get the vaccine and yet is avoiding it, is potentially putting the lives of the people around them at risk and individuals incarcerated at risk.”

Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, said in the release the clients living in its long-term care facilities are at a high risk of severe illness or death. Recent outbreaks in nursing facilities appear to have been sparked when unvaccinated employees unknowingly brought the virus to work.

“It is our ultimate responsibility to do everything we can to protect and provide for the wellbeing of our clients, and one another,” she said. “It is incumbent upon us to do the right thing for our clients, staff, loved ones and community.”

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