By Tori Mason

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) –  A clinic for underserved Coloradans was ordered to change its COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan after the state found its policy wasn’t inclusive. Mango House was only offering vaccinations to refugees and people living in the 80010 zip code, one of the poorest areas in the Denver metro area.

According to the state, exclusively vaccinating one area contradicts the governor’s goal of removing barriers.

(credit: CBS)

When Mango House first started distributing the vaccine, the clinic offered it to everyone eligible under state guidelines. It wasn’t long before the waiting room was filled with unfamiliar faces from the suburbs.

“My usual population of refugees and asylees were suddenly like ‘where did my safe space go?’” said Dr. P.J. Parmar, founder of the Mango House. “It’s very important to have that safe space for our refugees and our low income folks when there’s distrust of the vaccine. If they come in and see an entirely different population, one they can tell is a higher-income population, it’s going to change their acceptance of the vaccine and it’s going to change their acceptance of us as providers.”

In a statement to CBS4, Shelby Wieman, Acting Press Secretary for the State of Colorado wrote:

“We applaud the commitment to ensuring underserved Coloradans have access to the vaccine. We have made it clear to all providers that, while they may target specific zip codes or neighborhoods in an effort to reach underserved communities, it is not permissible to exclude others.”

The groups receiving care at the Mango House are often disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In order to increase access, Parmar is offering vaccines six days per week with no appointment necessary. Even the ability to make an appointment is something many struggle to do.

(credit: CBS)

“Well-to-do folks have phones that work. They can sit on hold and call place after place. They have the time if they don’t have to go to work. They have internet. They have cars,” explained Parmar. “The state is trying to make sure all people are served equally, which is a great objective, but there’s a step beyond that and that’s what we call equity. That’s where you help someone out who’s gotten the short end of the stick.”

In addition to the policy of exclusion, the state says there’s also an issue with Mango House advertising that patients are required to show ID to prove they live in the 80010 zip code.

“As the governor has made very clear, it is not permissible for any provider to require that an ID or proof of residency be presented in order to receive a vaccine. Identification and proof of residency are barriers to access to many Coloradans, and disproportionately affect those in our immigrant communities and Coloradans without a home,” wrote Wieman.

Parmar says proof was ID is to ensure people in the neighborhood are prioritized, but it wasn’t required.

“Of course, we’re not demanding it. We’re giving shots to undocumented folks and we’re doing shots for homeless people. The idea is to keep out people who are from, I hate to say it, the richer areas,” said Parmar. “They’re basically saying that I cannot focus on the underserved community. I have to focus on everybody equally. Anybody who does underserved medicine knows that that is basically a death sentence.”

Anyone from any zip code can make a vaccine appointment at the Mango House. However, Parmar says some will be waiting longer than others.

“If you are from 80010, or if you’re a refugee or asylee, you can come in today with no appointment,” said Parmar.

Parmar says his only fear is losing the ability to provide COVID-19 vaccines. That state says that is a possibility, if he doesn’t follow their guidance on access.

Tori Mason