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Colorado governor says he can’t guarantee people’s safety once state begins to reopen

Polis has been preparing Coloradans for a "new normal" as he eases restrictions on people's movements as early as next week

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters at the Colorado Convention Center on Friday, April 10, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis on Friday walked back a statement from one of his top health officials earlier in the week that he wouldn’t reopen Colorado until everyone in the state is safe from the new coronavirus.

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Polis said there is no way for him to make that guarantee.

“That’s not true. I don’t have — no governor has, the president doesn’t have — the capacity to make everyone safe,” he said. “I just want to set expectations out there that there is nobody that can make everybody safe, because the virus is going to stay with us.”

Scientists are working hard, he said, to ensure people are safe from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. And the state is supporting their efforts.

“But I just want to make sure that’s not the expectation,” he said of his ability to keep people out of harm’s way. “If any state, or any country, were to wait until we could keep everybody safe, we would have to be closed forever.”

Polis has been preparing Coloradans for a “new normal” as he eases restrictions on people’s movements as early as next week. But in recent days he has also begun warning the public that infections and hospitalizations may rise as people begin to resume aspects of their daily lives.

“Our job is to make sure there’s less people going to hospitals in a few weeks than there are now,” Polis told The Colorado Sun. “But, you know, with the reopening it could certainly go up before it levels off again.”

The governor says building up the state’s health care capacity is key to ensuring that those who do get sick have a fighting chance at survival.

Polis has contended that Coloradans can’t continue to be shut-in because the economic and psychological consequences would be too great. More than 200,000 have already filed for unemployment in Colorado and the expectation is that those numbers will continue to rise.

MORE: Colorado’s unemployment rate hit 4.5% in March; $600 federal payments for jobless begin next week

“Obviously if people could stay at home forever, the health care professionals would be thrilled,” Polis said. “If people could just stay at home all of May and June and July, this thing would go away. But people aren’t, because they can’t.”

Polis’ remarks Friday contradicted what a top Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment official told reporters during a media call on Thursday.

“The governor is very clear that the state will not reopen until he has the capacity to make everyone safe,” Scott Bookman, the state’s coronavirus incident commander, said Thursday.

Polis said he doesn’t fault Bookman for the comment, but said it is not accurate.

“Our public health officials are wonderful, but they’re not always accustomed to having every word examined as I am,” Polis said.

Polis’ statewide stay-at-home order is set to expire on April 26. He declined to answer questions on Friday about whether the expiration date could be changed.

“We’re moving forward,” Polis said, “and that doesn’t mean everything happens at once.”

But Bookman on Thursday was also emphatic that the state can’t be reopened until more testing capacity is in place.

“Having enough testing capacity is one of the key requirements of opening up the state,” Bookman said. “Until we have locations and partners and all of the equipment that we will need to do so, we won’t really be able to implement our testing strategy which is one of the foundational elements of reopening.”

It appears unlikely that widespread testing will be available by April 26, a week from Sunday.

Bookman also said there needs to be a minimum of one testing location in every county. There has been no indication Colorado is anywhere near that level.

A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment worker at a drive-through test clinic swabs the throat of a person referred for a COVID-19 test by their doctor on March 11, 2020. The patient will receive the results of their test in 24 to 72 hours. (Provided by 9News)

State public health officials say they are working to implement the best strategies for limiting coronavirus’ spread once the stay-at-home order is dropped.

“The idea is when the stay-at-home order is lifted that we would have alternative solutions to contain disease transmission,” Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s epidemiologist, said Thursday. “So, instead of using a stay-at-home order, we want to use aggressive disease-control strategies. Isolation and quarantine. Perhaps some other social distancing strategies that would be a little less than a stay-at-home order. And then other screening practices at businesses and nursing homes and other settings that could also limit transmission.” 

It’s not clear what those “aggressive disease-control strategies” may be. Polis has said details are forthcoming.

“There’s a variety of strategies were looking at. The challenge we have right now is trying to estimate how much each of those strategies might be able to limit disease transmission and then really come up with the appropriate menu of options to use to really try and match what we are achieving right now with the stay-at-home order,” Herlihy said Thursday.

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