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Coronavirus

A special committee advises the governor on how to respond to an epidemic. They’ve never faced a test like this.

At its first formal meeting since the coronavirus epidemic hit Colorado, the Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee debated how far the state should go to stop the disease.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan speaks at a news conference on COVID-19, the coronavirus, on March 3, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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The meeting started with the yowling feedback echoes of open microphones dialed into a teleconference line.

“Can I have folks mute their phones or their computers or both?” Greg Stasinos, the emergency preparedness official with the state Health Department who was moderating the meeting, asked the epidemic-response experts on the line.

This is one of the difficulties of coordinating the Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee at a time when a disease so infectious is sweeping the state that it makes meeting in person a liability. The 20 members of the committee, which advises Gov. Jared Polis about how best to respond to an epidemic, on Monday held their first formal meeting since COVID-19 hit the state.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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They called in from wherever they happened to be hunkered down. Dogs sometimes barked in the background when members spoke. Cellphone ringtones occasionally interrupted.

But the logistics of the meeting were also the least of the challenges facing the committee, which is made up of experts in health care, public health, veterinary medicine, public safety, emergency management, communications and other fields. Though the committee normally meets every three months and has offered help on public health crises in the past, it has been more than a century since the United States has seen an epidemic this serious.

“What we’re embarking on here,” one member said during the meeting, “is evidence-informed guesswork.”

But in they plunged.

First came an update on the new coronavirus’ spread in Colorado — 160 confirmed cases at the time of the meeting. “We do expect the numbers to go up significantly from here as time goes on,” state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy told the group. Then came discussion about how far the state should go to stop it.

DENVER, CO – MARCH 14: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Laboratory Services Division in Denver. Denver, Colorado on Saturday. March 14, 2020. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

The committee was formed in 2000, to advise the governor on “the public health response to acts of bioterrorism, pandemic influenza, and epidemics caused by novel and highly fatal infectious agents,” according to its authorizing statute. It offered guidance during the H1N1 flu epidemic in 2009, the Ebola scare and, most recently, the state’s Hepatitis A outbreak. It participates in trainings and helps make changes to the state’s pandemic response plan.

But it’s never faced a situation like COVID-19, where the state is exercising public health powers it hasn’t used since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The first option discussed at Monday’s meeting was also the least controversial: closing bars and restaurants statewide to in-person dining, as well as closing casinos, gyms and theaters. About an hour after the committee meeting ended Monday afternoon with agreement to recommend the action, Polis announced an order to do just that. 

But then the conversation wandered into more difficult areas.

There was discussion about the need to draw up a list of essential and non-essential businesses — a prelude to a possible order requiring all businesses deemed non-essential in the state to close. Grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, banks and health care providers made the cut as essential. But how do you classify a hardware store? Or should you not even draw up a list but instead make rules to limit crowding in any business?

“As we outline what is essential, it does begin to get really quite complicated,” said Dr. John Douglas, the executive director of the Tri-County Health Department.

Polis, who listened in on most of the call, asked the committee to keep that discussion going. He did not rule out additional orders shutting down businesses to stop the spread of the virus.

“I think you need to do more work on (it) and bring back in a few days when we figure out what’s in and what’s out,” Polis said.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis gives an update about the extent of the coronavirus in Colorado during a press conference on March 11, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

There was talk about the need for more medical supplies, especially the protective equipment that health care workers must wear when treating a COVID-19 patient.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

There was an idea floated to require hospitals to cancel all elective surgeries — which a representative from the Colorado Hospital Association said could be financially devastating to rural hospitals that are currently seeing little COVID-19 activity in their areas.

There was debate about how best to house the partners and roommates of medical workers who show symptoms of the disease and need to be isolated — In hotels? Empty recreation centers? How do you keep the medical workforce from getting sidelined by the same thing that’s affecting their patients?

“The health care system is starting to get stressed right now,” Dr. Daniel Pastula, a member of the state Board of Health, said. “So I think we should take this absolutely very seriously, and anything we can do to slow this down that’s reasonable I think we should consider.”

By the end of the meeting, there was an understanding that they would need to meet again — probably soon.

Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the executive director of the state Health Department, closed the meeting by thanking the committee members.

“Hang in there,” she said, “and take care of yourselves.”


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