CENTENNIAL — Each Coloradan infected by the new coronavirus likely has spread the disease to three or four others, Gov. Jared Polis said Friday as he warned of how bad things may get in the state unless people start taking social distancing seriously.
In explaining — and defending — his stay-at-home order issued earlier this week, Polis said the goal is to reduce that transmission number as much as possible and prevent a calamity in the coming months. Still, he warned that the situation will continue to worsen regardless.
But, the governor says, Coloradans can save thousands of lives by heeding the public health orders issued in recent weeks.
“We can save lives quickly, and we are, by staying home,” Polis said.
The coronavirus has sickened more than 1,700 people in Colorado and killed at least 33. More than 200 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
State health officials have warned there are likely thousands more who are infected with virus who either haven’t yet been tested or who don’t have symptoms.
In releasing preliminary epidemiological projections developed by a team at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, Polis portrayed a dire situation that would have occurred had the state taken no action.
Without any social distancing measures, Polis said COVID-19 could kill more than 33,000 people in the state under the worst scenario. At the peak of the outbreak, Colorado would need nearly 14,000 critical-care hospital beds.
The state has only about 1,800 such beds now, Polis said. Hospitals hope to add another 1,000 critical-care beds by May and have 5,000 critical-care beds by the summer, he said.
Colorado hospitals currently have only about 900 ventilators — which will be vital for saving lives as the virus sweeps through the state. But Polis said hospitals may need as many as 7,000 ventilators at the peak of the pandemic.
Friday was the first time state officials have disclosed the estimated number of critical-care hospital beds and ventilators available in the state. The information comes as they increasingly stress to the public the need to stay home as much as possible.
The global transmission rate for coronavirus patients is two, meaning that Colorado has been trending above that level. Polis said that could be because of a myriad of factors.
“Colorado is dry, Colorado has been cold. Those things affect it,” he said. “Coloradans, unlike in Asian countries, traditionally greet one other by shaking hands instead of bowing.”
With social distancing measures, Polis said, the projected numbers of deaths and needed beds fall significantly. In the most optimistic scenario, if the state reduces social interaction by 60%, Polis said 900 critical-care beds would be needed at the peak of the outbreak and the virus would claim 400 lives in Colorado this year.
Polis said he is hoping the stay-at-home order will achieve a 70 to 80% reduction in social contact, meaning deaths and resource demands will be even lower.
“I, like you, would much rather end up with more masks at the end of this than to leave people without masks and infected and dying,” he said. “I’d like to have one extra ventilator than one too few. If we get this right, some might say we did too much too soon. I would much rather be the recipient of that complaint than to have a full-scale public health disaster with tens of thousands of Coloradans paying the ultimate price.”
“The counting on this just continually evolves”
The numbers released Friday come with some significant uncertainties — including whether researchers have accurately been able to calculate the infectiousness of the new coronavirus and whether the state can accurately predict the current number of people infected.
In an interview earlier Friday, Scott Bookman, the state Health Department’s incident commander for COVID-19, said health officials are still working with private testing labs to capture data about all the tests those labs are running and are also working to update how they track hospitalizations and recoveries.
“The counting on this just continually evolves as the outbreak evolves,” he said.
But the new projections are in line with other estimates that have been recently published.
Earlier this week, researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released state-by-state projections for the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it does not reflect the impact of Polis’ stay-at-home order, the model still paints an optimistic picture for Colorado — showing that the state will have enough hospital beds to meet the demand, provided the current measures remain in place for at least a few more weeks. The model projects 940 deaths in Colorado from COVID-19 by late summer.
A team of data scientists calling themselves CoVidActNow has also published projections showing that Colorado will stay well within its hospital resource capacity with a stay-at-home order that goes on for three months.
Polis said it could be weeks until Colorado can see the benefit in data of the restrictions he’s placed on the state. It can take days before the virus sickens people who are infected. He said it may not be until April 7 that the state sees the effect of the stay-at-home order that went into effect on Thursday.
“We won’t know the full impact for each action until 12 days or so,” he said.
Numbers published by the data company Unacast show the measures are having an impact in at least one measurable way. As of Monday, Coloradans had reduced their average distance traveled by nearly 30%, and some mountain communities — which issued local stay-at-home orders prior to the state’s — had seen their travel drop by more than 50%.
Polis, who was more animated during his Friday news conference than he had been in previous briefings, said he knows the stay-at-home order has inflicted hardship on many Coloradans. But without taking action, he said, the impact of losing tens of thousands of lives over the next couple of months would linger far longer in the state’s culture and economy. Following the order now is needed both to save lives and to allow life to return to normal more quickly.
“This,” he said, “is the quickest path from A to B.”
Polis also brushed off criticism from a number of Republicans in the legislature who blasted the governor for not consulting with them. Polis said his moves have been necessary and certainly aren’t partisan.
“Those businesses will be shut down”
The governor also issued a stern warning to nonessential businesses that are staying open despite his stay-at-home order, as well as essential businesses that aren’t doing everything they can to ensure social distancing in the workplace.
“That’s against the law,” Polis said, “and those business will be shut down. Please report them immediately. Companies need to take this very seriously. If there’s bad employers out there that are just saying ‘somehow we’re exempt,’ no employer is exempt from this order. If you are critical, you are required to do the maximum social distancing you can.”
The governor urged people to file reports with their county health departments and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
Polis also said people, on an individual basis, need to challenge each other to practice social distancing as much as possible.
“We are seeing increased social distancing. That’s good,” he said. “But we need to see more.”
Polis said the state has been tracking the effectiveness of its orders limiting Coloradans’ movement by monitoring traffic numbers and also GPS data from people’s mobile devices.
“We are using commercially available data that the state is subscribed to that gives us GPS ping data that provides us sampling of how Coloradans are moving and where,” he said.
Polis stressed that the data doesn’t provide identifiable information and has been used for years by governments and businesses for things like zoning and store placement.
The end goal
Polis said the idea is to allow Coloradans to resume their daily lives as soon as possible, but he made clear that the virus will be around for a long time to come.
“The virus will still be with us,” he said.
It will be, as Polis calls it, a “new” normal. Precautions will still be in place, but the situation will be less dire and deadly.
“We want to implement the South Korea model. South Korea doesn’t function the exact way it functioned two months ago, but most people are able to go to work, earn a living and it’s generally functioning as an economy in a way that America is not right now.”
That country has controlled the spread of the virus through widespread testing, contact tracing — tracking who infected people interacted with — and close surveillance.
“They’re dealing with the problem on a case-by-case, cluster-by-cluster basis instead of with widespread lockdowns and disruptions of economic activity,” he said, “which is where he want to get here in Colorado.”