Colorado is ramping up who can first qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine to include more elderly people primarily because they are far more at risk of dying from it.

As a result, instead of opening up access to the vaccine in the first phase of its rollout to only frontline health-care professionals and other essential workers, the state is adding anyone who is 70 or older.

Gov. Jared Polis said that decision was made because about 78% of all deaths in Colorado have been people 70 and older.

In Mesa County, that percentage of COVID deaths for older people is closer to 86%, and even higher (95%) when adding people who are 60 and older.

“It’s likely, given the size of the 70 and up population, that this will take about four to five weeks before everyone over 70 who wants it will have gotten the first dose,” Polis said on Wednesday. “While Coloradans 70 and up are receiving vaccinations, we’re also working with different employers to do targeted programs for essential frontline workers, continuity of state government, educators, teachers, food and ag workers, U.S. Postal Service, public transit, grocery workers, essentially the CDC list.”

The governor and his top medical advisers said they decided to make that change before news came out Tuesday about the state’s — and nation’s — first confirmed case of the more transmittable variant of the coronavirus first discovered in the United Kingdom in the fall.

That case was of a Colorado National Guard service member in his 20s who was assigned to help in a long-term care facility in Simla, located about 48 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. Another guardsman deployed to that same facility may also have the variant, known as B.1.1.7, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s chief epidemiologist.

Herlihy said that 20 of 34 staffers at that Simla facility have tested positive for the virus, and all 26 residents there also are COVID positive, four of whom have died. She said, however, that none have been infected by the new variant.

“To determine if the B.1.1.7 variant is circulating in the facility beyond these two individuals that work for the National Guard, we have deployed a team — that was done yesterday — to collect specimens,” she said. “So far … we do not have evidence that the variant virus is circulating in that facility.”

Herlihy and other state public health professionals said they don’t yet know how widespread the new variant is, but said it’s unlikely to be an isolated case.

They did say, however, that although the variant is more transmittable than the virus that has been more prevalent in the nation, they said symptoms are the same and the new vaccines that have been approved are just as effective against it.

The real worry, they said, is it could lead to far more hospitalizations and deaths, adding that many of the available intensive care beds in the state are near capacity.

In Mesa County, the number of filled hospital beds is at more than 86%, while the number of staffed ICU beds is at 73%. Fortunately, only about 15% of available ventilators are in use, according to the Mesa County Department of Public Health.

Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health, said that although MCPH is overseeing vaccines for everyone entitled to receive them in the state’s Phase 1A category, which includes frontline coronavirus medical professionals, it isn’t waiting to start dispensing it to people in the 1B category, which covers first responders, medical professionals not directly involved with COVID-19 patients and people over the age of 70.

That’s because only about 60% of frontline workers in the 1A category have so far asked for the vaccine, Kuhr said, adding that many may have delayed getting it for fear of any side effects just before the Christmas holidays.

Because of that relatively low vaccine participation rate, he didn’t want to sit on available doses waiting more people in the 1A category to decide to get it, Kuhr said.

“We’re starting to co-mingle 1A and 1B right now because we’ve gotten people vaccinated who are interested in being vaccinated,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that 1A is out of the picture, but we know we can’t hold so tight to those vaccines. We can’t wait, so we decided to open up to 1B as well.”

The addition of people over the age of 70 in the 1B category was sprung on the department a few hours before Polis announced it, which led to numerous people flooding the department with calls asking when they could get the vaccine, Kuhr said.

As a result, the department added to its website a way for people who are eligible to sign their names to a waiting list to get it.

That site — health.mesacounty.us/covid19/vaccine — also provides daily updates about vaccine doses that have been delivered to the county and how many have been dispensed.

Kuhr said those who sign up will be contacted when their dose is available.

He said the county has received more than 6,800 doses of the vaccine so far, and has dispensed about 1,580 over the past two weeks.

He said it will be weeks before there is enough to cover everyone age 70 and over who wants it, and is expecting at least 7,000 more doses to arrive in the next two weeks.

Kuhr said there are about 11,000 frontline, first responders and essential workers in the county who are already eligible for the vaccine, and another 21,000 people who are 70 and older who now can get it. Still, he doesn’t expect to need 32,000 doses of the vaccine because he doesn’t expect 100% of them to ask for a vaccination.

He also said that the department isn’t holding back the second dose for Phase 1 people — both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two, with the second coming about three weeks after the first — counting on those doses to arrive when that time comes.

Vaccines have been or soon will be distributed directly from the state to all long-term care facilities, which are inoculating their own residents and staff, Kuhr said, adding that the department has no control over those vaccinations.

Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser also are warning people not to be fooled by vaccine scams.

They said that the vaccine is free and doesn’t come with an insurance co-pay, so if anyone is trying to charge them, they likely aren’t legitimate vaccines.