Colorado Gov. Jared Polis stood at a lectern Tuesday and made the most extensive comments he has to date about how the state is preparing for a potential coronavirus epidemic.
“My top priority as governor is keeping our state safe,” he said.
Right now, a lot of the preparations involve planning and waiting. Colorado has not yet had a confirmed case of COVID-19, the official name for the new strain of coronavirus sweeping the globe. How the state will use its potentially expansive powers to control an outbreak remains unclear.
So, here are five things we learned Tuesday about the state’s response. But first, and more importantly, we want to hear from you about your questions on how Colorado will handle an outbreak. Send them to me at email@example.com or tweet them to me @johningold, and I will hunt down answers for future Sun stories.
There’s now more testing capacity — but it’s unknown whether it’s enough
Polis said the state now has the ability to test 160 samples a day for coronavirus at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s lab in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood. It takes about 24 hours to return a result.
That’s a lot more tests than the state has conducted so far. As of Tuesday morning, CDPHE had completed only 15 tests for coronavirus at its lab. Another 14 tests had been sent out for testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eight additional tests are still pending — bringing the total number of Coloradans tested for coronavirus to 37.
All of the results so far have been negative.
But, Colorado has also just significantly increased the potential pool of people to be tested. Previously, the state was testing only patients who had traveled to a country where there is a large outbreak — like China or Italy — or who had contact in the U.S. with someone known to have coronavirus.
Now, Polis said the state will also test people who are exhibiting symptoms — cough, fever and difficulty breathing — and who have tested negative for the flu and other known respiratory illnesses. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the federal response to coronavirus, announced Tuesday evening that the federal government will now allow anyone to be tested as long as a doctor orders it.
So, how many tests will the state now have to run? Nobody knows. But Polis also said Tuesday he expects the state’s testing capacity will increase in the coming weeks.
Yes, it’s possible coronavirus is already here
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, CDPHE’s executive director, said testing is so important because coronavirus could potentially already be in Colorado, just based on the experiences of other states that didn’t discover their outbreaks until they were underway.
“It is possible that mild cases are going undetected by the medical system and are being spread to others,” she said.
That means people in Colorado should be taking precautions now. Frequent and thorough hand-washing is the most recommended prevention strategy. Polis took pains to say that people should wash their hands each time for 20 seconds — longer than anyone normally would.
He said people should also stay home if they feel sick and they should cough into tissues that they throw away if they have to be in public. If people decide to go to the doctor or the emergency room, he said they should call ahead to get instructions on how not to infect others.
“People should not be flocking to the emergency room unless they are in dire need of treatment,” Polis said.
Instead, Polis encouraged Coloradans to go about their lives mostly as normal. Despite coronavirus being top-of-mind, people in Colorado are still more likely to come down with the flu or a common cold.
The state has 650,000 masks in storage
Colorado emergency managers said Tuesday that they have been prepping for coronavirus’s potential arrival in the state for eight weeks.
Part of that is taking stock of the state cache of medical supplies — which Polis said currently holds 650,000 masks that can be distributed to hospitals if they run low and can’t get more from suppliers. (The federal government’s own cache has 43 million masks.)
Colorado has also ramped up its emergency operations center, which will gather information about the coronavirus epidemic and help coordinate the state’s response with 10 other agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mike Willis, the state emergency manager, said the state has raised its emergency preparedness level to the second-highest mark to emphasize the seriousness of a potential epidemic.
If it gets bad, Polis has broad powers
Despite the increased emergency response, coronavirus is not yet an official emergency in Colorado. If Polis does eventually issue that declaration, though, the Colorado Disaster Emergency Act gives him authority to order quarantines, give instructions to doctors and hospitals, suspend state regulations and more.
Polis said Tuesday that, if need be, he would “not hesitate” to use these emergency powers to control a coronavirus outbreak.
Helping in this is a specially created epidemic response committee that meets regularly to go over Colorado’s preparedness.
Meanwhile, Polis said he has been on the phone with Pence, asking for money for a “staffing surge” of health workers and for reductions in red tape surrounding emergency grants. He said he has also talked with Colorado’s congressional delegation to urge them to approve more funding for anti-coronavirus efforts.
One thing he did not commit to Tuesday is making it more affordable for people to get treatment for potential coronavirus cases. The governor of New York on Monday told insurers not to bill patients for costs related to testing for coronavirus.
Polis said the tests at CDPHE’s labs are free to patients. But that doesn’t mean patients won’t be billed for other medical services they receive in the course of getting tested. Colorado Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway said Tuesday that the state is studying the issue.
The legislature will carry on — but may have to take a break
The Colorado legislature’s leadership on Tuesday received a briefing on contingency plans should the virus prompt an interruption in — or mandatory end to — the lawmaking term, which began in January and is currently scheduled to end May 6.
The Colorado General Assembly must pass a budget before it concludes for the year, and potential remedies include temporarily suspending the legislative session and returning at a later point. The legislature could also completely end the lawmaking term and reconvene when the danger level has reduced.
There is even a possibility that state health officials could deem the Capitol unsafe to occupy.
Natalie Mullis, director of legislative council staff, told legislative leadership they may want to begin considering prioritizing certain bills just in case they must abruptly stop lawmaking in the coming weeks. The budget isn’t currently set to be debated until the week of March 24.
“The budget is on track, and I don’t expect it to be introduced early,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat.
Virtual lawmaking does not appear to be an option, at least currently. Lawmakers are required to cast votes in person notwithstanding a change in the legislature’s rules. Any alteration would need to include a way to verify that legislators are casting votes for themselves.
Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.