Gov. Jared Polis said Friday he is urging the cancellation of large public gatherings in Colorado, as he and other state officials shifted in how they talk about COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and sought to limit the suffering they now say it will most certainly cause.
At a morning news conference, Polis stood next to a now-familiar graphic showing how mitigation measures like social distancing can slow the spread of the disease and keep it from maxing out the health care system.
It is no longer possible to confine the disease to a handful of communities Polis said. The state has identified 72 positive cases of COVID-19 in 14 counties, and Polis said there are likely hundreds or thousands more. Eight people are hospitalized with the disease, including three in critical condition.
State health officials have identified cases of community spread in different areas of the state, including the Denver metro area.
Polis said the virus “will be an enormous strain on our system and our workforce.” He said, “Many Coloradans will get it. You’re going to get it, or a friend will get it or a family member. Somebody you know is going to have coronavirus,” though he said most will experience less-serious symptoms that do not require hospitalization.
“There is no successful effort to contain this virus in the United States of America,” Polis said. “It is here. I want to talk to you about the trajectories that can be affected based on the actions that are taken.”
So, Polis said, gesturing to the graphic, it is now important for his administration to do everything it can to keep the health care system from being overrun, as it has in Seattle, Italy and other places hit hard by the virus.
On Friday, Polis announced:
- That he is urging any gathering of over 250 people be canceled. The only exception is if the event “can successfully ensure the distance of 6 feet between parties.” Six feet is the minimum recommended distance to keep the virus from spreading between people through the air.
- That he has told the state Department of Regulatory Agencies to relax licensing rules to allow medical professionals licensed in other states to be quickly approved to work in Colorado.
- That he is asking any trained medical professional who is not currently in the workforce — because they are retired or moved into a different field — to reconnect with their former employers to potentially be available to provide relief for front-line medical workers.
- That he has reached out to the University of Colorado School of Medicine to see if med students are available to pitch in.
- That he has activated the Colorado National Guard and is getting members trained in how to administer COVID-19 tests.
- That he is setting up a statewide effort to coordinate support from nonprofits and the private sector.
“This is a shared recognition that the public health consequences — the human consequences — need to remain our primary focus,” Polis said. “This is how we’re going to weather the storm, protect our most vulnerable and prevent a catastrophic overload of the health care system.”
He strongly urged people to stay home when sick, to adhere to isolation orders when told to, and to be responsible when visiting elderly relatives or other vulnerable people.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “We’re going to get through this together.”
Several counties had already begun to limit gatherings on their own, including Pitkin and Eagle, which have been among the state’s hardest hit by the outbreak.
Eagle County public health officials, which includes Vail Resort and Beaver Creek ski area, issued an order this week limiting public gatherings to 50 people until at least April 8. The order doesn’t apply to schools, the airport and ski areas.
Anyone who violates the Eagle County order is subject to prosecution for a misdemeanor.
Public health officials already knew that the virus was spreading person to person in the high country and suspected it was also doing so in the Denver area, but now they have confirmation. Polis said there are several cases of community spread in the Denver area.
“None of this should be surprising. We said that this was likely a few days ago,” Polis said.
Polis said right now the community spread is limited, but that it’s expected to grow significantly in the coming days.
“It’s just a matter of time before we have our first fatality here in Colorado,” Polis said.
Polis said state Health Department lab has so far conducted tests for about 650 people, and he said the state has collected samples for testing from about 1,500 people, in total.
He said that 90% of the completed tests have come back negative, however.
“We are testing more than any other state in the country,” Polis said. “But that is just a small fraction of the likely cases in our state.”
Much more testing will be needed — both so that the state can understand where the hotspots are and assign resources and also so that people who are tested know how long they need to stay isolated. He said Colorado continues to work with the federal government, hospitals and private companies to increase the number of tests available.
“I’m urging Coloradans to focus on what we can control,” he said. “… This is really an all-hands-on-deck effort to slow the spread in Colorado.”