Editors note: The story has been updated to reflect that Mondragon was able to obtain shots for her parents.
DENVER — For one Northern Colorado woman, the fact that elected state legislators and their staff are getting vaccinated ahead of most other Coloradans, and with much less hassle, is both frustrating and wrong.
For three weeks, Sara Mondragon began her morning combing several different websites hoping among hope that she could get her parents an appointment for their COVID-19 vaccination.
Despite the fact that Mondragon’s parents are both over 70, and her father has been fighting cancer for the past four years, getting them vaccinated seemed nearly impossible, she said.
“The day Polis said people 70 and older can get the vaccine, I went and put my parents on three county health departments as well as UCHealth, Cigna, Banner, and SCL Health,” Mondragon said. “You have to make an account for every single one of these, your name, your address, your phone number, your date of birth, security questions, a password and a username.”
So each morning, Mondragon logged into 14 different accounts trying to get her parents the shot.
“When I would log on, you hit the request for a vaccination, and once you did it would say no appointments available at this time,” Mondragon. “They wouldn’t even give you options for tomorrow or the next day.”
That process, however, was not so hard for Colorado lawmakers and their staff according to emails obtained by Complete Colorado through several Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests. Mondragon said she was appalled to learn that legislators and capitol staff were able to secure their vaccines, not only ahead of those who were in high-risk groups but by simply creating an account with UCHealth and waiting, at maximum for 48 hours, for an invite to make an appointment.
“Every morning my ritual would be get up, log on to seven different sites for each of my parents and see if they had any appointments available,” Mondragon said. “Anytime I had 10-15 minutes during the day, I would go and log on again.”
It didn’t stop there, however. Despite health officials urging Coloradans not to “vaccine shop,” the state and UCHealth also made it much more convenient by picking which vaccine legislators received to make it as quick as possible, in an effort to get everyone both shots before they returned to work on Feb. 16.
According to a report by KWGN, Denver 2, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said all the vaccines that have received FDA approval are safe and effective.
“It’s a plea also being echoed by most doctors,” the news station reported.
“Whatever opportunity you have to get the vaccine first, take that one,” urged Dr. David Wyles, Denver Health’s Chief of Infectious Disease, the report said.
However, according to the emails obtained by Complete Colorado, UCHealth officials said they would do their “best to make the Pfizer vaccine available,” whose second shot is delivered one week earlier than it is for the Moderna vaccine. It appears UCHealth was successful in its efforts.
“The appointments they are offering including a 21-day window, so it looks like it’s the Pfizer vaccine they’ve allocated to us,” said Natalie Mullis, director of the Colorado Legislative Council Staff, in a follow up email.
For Mondragon, who eventually did get both parents both rounds of shots, it took hours from her daily schedule for weeks to get her family–who has lost four members to the virus–the security they needed to see their loved ones again.
“How come their health issues have not taken precedence over these healthy legislators?” Mondragon asked. “What gives that healthy man precedence over (those most vulnerable)? Why was the process not made simpler for them?”
Complicated? Depends on who you are
Mondragon’s frustration has pushed her to help others she knows with the same problems create their accounts and schedule their appointments because the system is so complicated to maneuver.
According to the emails, after Gov. Jared Polis moved legislators and select legislative staff to the front of the vaccination line, legislators were able to schedule their shots through a simple registration process that took in most cases, no more than 15 minutes.
On Jan. 8 Mullis sent an email to all 100 legislators explaining the process.
“Step 1 — Register. Using the URL (given in the email) the person who is a candidate for the vaccination will either sign-in to their current UCHealth MyHealthConnection (MHC) account if they already have one, or set up a MHC account. Having the MHC allows the person to get the vaccination message to schedule their appointment and allows them to receive a reminder for their second vaccination,” the email said in part. “Step 2 —Receive and respond to an invitation to make an appointment. Twice a day UCHealth sends out invitations to people on the registry to schedule their vaccination appointment. Once that message is received, the person on the registry will be able to click on the message and schedule BOTH of their appointments. This invitation expires 48 hours after being sent so we ask that everyone acts quickly to get an appointment scheduled. “
She followed that up on Jan. 15 with an email that stated the actual delivery of the shot was just as simple. “Several people have told me that the process is fairly easy,” Mullis said. “As you approach their facility, follow the red COVID yard signs to the correct entrance. After you enter, the security staff will look you up to confirm that you’re legitimate. Then you’ll be directed to the right place to receive your vaccine. Please reserve at least 30 minutes for your appointment.”
It is not clear how many legislators and staff were “invited” for their shot, but as of Jan 10, 137 people had signed up.
Who took the shot?
Complete Colorado sent an email to all 100 state legislators asking if they had chosen to get the vaccination. Only a fraction responded after legislative legal counsel Sharon Eberhard sent an email to them telling them the request was not an official CORA request and, therefore, they did not have to respond. Those who did respond, had a variety of answers.
Of the Democrats to answer Complete Colorado’s request Brianna Titone, who represents HD 27 in Jefferson County, confirmed she got the vaccine, adding that she was eligible when she go the vaccine and did not “jump the line.”
While this is technically accurate for all state legislators based on Polis prioritizing lawmakers in the vaccine schedule, Titone would not elaborate on what may have made her eligible beyond that.
“I will tell you that I was an eligible recipient when I received my vaccines, but I will not reveal any personal information beyond that,” Titone said.
Two Republicans also said they got their vaccines, Janice Rich, Mesa County (HD 55) and Andres Pico, El Paso County (HD 16), both said they were otherwise eligible outside of the legislative invite.
There were many who openly refused the vaccine — including the entire Weld County Republican contingency of senators and representatives — saying they planned to wait until they would otherwise be eligible, while both the Senate and House minority leaders, Chris Holbert and Hugh McKean, respectively, would not disclose whether they got the shot.
Keeping mum on the process and getting special treatment seems to be the narrative for the state, as Mullis also reminded legislators and staff invited to get the vaccine that they did not have to tell anyone, in what appears to be an attempt to protect those who said “no,” while expanding the offering to others.
“The vaccine is anonymous, so if you choose not to receive it you don’t have to tell anyone,” Mullis said. “But I can reallocate your vaccine to another person if you choose to tell me. And, I will keep your choice to refuse the vaccine completely confidential.”
“An exhibition in privilege”
Former 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler recently called out Governor Polis in a Denver Post opinion piece for jumping the vaccination line himself, as well as putting lawmakers and staff ahead of others. He called the effort nothing short of an exhibition in privilege. He told Complete Colorado it doesn’t matter if they are Democrats or Republicans, they are elected officials who work for the people and when the state is working overtime trying to vaccinate at-risk residents they should not be getting special treatment because of their position.
“If the idea behind it is because legislators deal with public every day, what about those who work in restaurants and home depot that deal with 8 million more people every day?” Brauchler said. “It’s political elitism. And it is not partisan. While we are hovering around 60 percent of the elderly and they all got it, and we are frantically trying to vaccinate teachers so our kids can go back to in-person learning, the idea that somebody’s political position provided them an opportunity is wrong.”
Below are the legislators who responded to Complete Colorado’s inquiry into whether they got the vaccine. (Complete Colorado will update this list as it hears from more legislators)
- Paul Lundeen, R-El Paso County (SD 9) — No
- Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Weld (SD 23) — No
- Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County (SD 30) would not answer, saying only that he was not interested in swaying other people’s decision based on the decision he made and encouraged people to consult their doctor. He said he has only heard from his constituents to say it was not right.
- John Cooke, R-Weld (SD 13) — No
- Dennis Hisey, R-El Paso (SD 2) — No
- Pete Lee, D-El Paso (SD 11) — Yes
- Janice Rich, R-Mesa County (HD 55) — Yes, otherwise qualified
- Andres Pico, R-El Paso County (HD 16) — Yes, otherwise qualified
- Tonya Van Beber, R-Weld County (HD 48) — No
- Mark Baisley, R-Douglas/Teller County (HD 39) — Would not answer. Does not think he should have had priority. But won’t answer because he believes it is being used politically to beat up on people.
- Dan Woog, R-Weld County (HD 63) — No
- Matt Soper, R-Delta/Mesa County (HD 54) — No
- Rod Bockenfeld, R-Adams/Arapahoe (HD 56) — No
- Mike Lynch, R-Weld/Larimer County (HD 49) — No
- Marc Catlin, R-Montazuma/Montrose (HD 58) — No
- David Ortiz, D-Arapahoe (HD 38) — Yes
- Brianna Titone, D-Jefferson (HD 27) — Yes
- Hugh McKean, R-Larimer (HD-53) — Would not answer. Said he doesn’t believe it helps anything to announce who did and who didn’t, and can only cause more division in his chamber.
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