Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in response to Colorado’s growing numbers of cases from the new coronavirus, allowing him to take more aggressive actions to try to curb the virus’s spread.
There are now at least 17 confirmed cases in Colorado of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Five new cases were announced on Tuesday, in Eagle, Gunnison, Denver, Jefferson and Arapahoe counties.
“There will be more confirmed cases,” Polis said. “We’re going to get through this together.”
While many of Colorado’s cases have been tied to out-of-state or international travel, the governor said that it is possible there have been cases of coronavirus spreading person-to-person, a phenomenon known as “community spread” that takes the outbreak to a new level of seriousness and puts many more at risk of infection.
“While we don’t have a confirmed case of community spread in Colorado, we have several candidate cases where it’s possible,” he said.
At the very least, health officials are expecting cases of community spread in the coming days, creating the urgency to declare a state of emergency, Polis said.
Colorado’s Disaster Emergency Act gives Polis expansive power to close buildings, order quarantines, halt travel, suspend rules and ban public gatherings. But the orders he announced Tuesday show — at least so far — a desire to limit his use of that authority and to try to prevent disruption to daily life.
Among his actions, Polis:
- Ordered the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to develop emergency rules requiring that workers in the food service, hospitality, child care, education and health care fields be guaranteed paid sick leave when they exhibit flu-like symptoms and seek testing for COVID-19. “When these workers lack paid leave, it poses great risk to our ability to protect the public,” he said.
- Also ordered CDLE to look at ways to replace the wages of workers in those fields who test positive for the virus but lack paid sick leave.
- Urged the rest of the private sector to voluntarily guarantee paid sick leave for its workers.
- Ordered the Department of Revenue to temporarily suspend a rule requiring Coloradans 65 and older to renew their driver’s licenses in person. A woman who tested positive for the disease in Douglas County visited a Department of Motor Vehicles location earlier this month, prior to her diagnosis.
- Declared that state employees who are placed into quarantine or isolation after a positive test for or possible exposure to the COVID-19 virus will be allowed to work from home.
Polis has also previously ordered the state Division of Insurance to draft emergency rules requiring insurance carriers it regulates not to collect co-pays or deductibles for treatment related to a test for COVID-19.
These steps are well short of what the law allows Polis to do to contain an outbreak of disease.
When his Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee met last week to get up to speed on COVID-19, it looked at templates for executive orders that would give Polis greater control over hospital admissions and allow him to move patients and resources around the system to minimize strain at any one hospital; that would allow Polis to commandeer prescription drugs from pharmacies and order their rapid distribution; that would allow Polis to suspend rules around the licensing of doctors or nurses so that people licensed in another state could practice in Colorado; and that would allow him to enforce quarantine orders and order the cancellation of public events or closure of buildings.
But Polis said he has so far stopped short of taking these more dramatic steps because he doesn’t want to lock down the state’s economy. During a news conference, Polis repeatedly cited Italy — where more than 10,000 people have been infected with the virus and the government has ordered the entire country shut down — as an example to avoid.
“To our state and our economy, it’s important for me to say declaring a state of emergency does not mean that Colorado isn’t open for business, or recreation, or tourism. We are,” Polis said. “Nor should this declaration cause more anxiety. In fact, quite the opposite. We hope that these actions provide reassurance that we are aware of the risk and taking every reasonable step that we can we contain the spread the virus and protect our most vulnerable.”
Polis also on Tuesday announced a significant expansion in the state’s testing capacity.
Starting Wednesday, Polis said, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will open a drive-through testing center at its lab. The lab is located at 8100 E. Lowry Boulevard in Denver, and Polis warned people not to try to be tested at CDPHE’s headquarters in Glendale. The lab will only accept tests from people who have an authorization from a doctor for the test.
Polis said the state hopes to be opening more drive-through testing sites soon, including one somewhere in the mountains, where a number of cases have been identified.
To help expand capacity at the state’s lab, Polis said he was assured Monday night by the head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Colorado will receive an additional 1,500 testing kits this week. The state currently has about 900 testing kits.
Polis also said a private company, LabCorp, has announced it is also now able to accept samples submitted by doctors for testing. The LabCorp test takes longer — as much as four days, compared to CDPHE’s one day — but the move could greatly increase the number of people who are tested for the disease in Colorado.
“Testing more people is a very good thing,” Polis said. “The more people we test and the sooner we do it, the better chance we have of successfully containing this disease.”
It is currently unclear how many people have received a test in the state. As of Monday night, CDPHE had conducted roughly 300 tests. But samples from some people can receive multiple tests, so the number of people tested could be far lower.
Polis has said the state lab has the capacity to run at least 160 tests a day, but it has so far been running far fewer — in part because of restrictive testing criteria that require people to have had contact with a known COVID-19 patient, to have traveled to an area with a known outbreak or to have a severe respiratory illness that requires hospitalization and doesn’t have a known cause.
On Tuesday, Polis said the state lab would continue to prioritize tests from people who meet that criteria. But he also said, “If you’re exhibiting flu-like symptoms, we want you to get tested.”
There is a need for “an exponential increase in testing,” he said.
Additional orders coming
Polis said more executive actions will follow in the coming days, including guidance for schools and nursing homes on how to respond.
During his news conference, Polis repeatedly talked about the need to take precautions to protect the state’s residents most vulnerable to the disease — those over age 65. He urged the state’s younger or healthier residents to think of the good of the community when considering their own health.
People with flu-like symptoms — fever, a cough, illness-related shortness of breath — should not go to public gatherings, should try to keep a six-foot distance between themselves and others, should practice good hygiene and should call their doctor or a hospital in advance of heading in for treatment.
“Place yourself, responsibly, in isolation,” Polis said.