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Colorado will rework its dial system once people age 70 and older are vaccinated, governor says

Gov. Jared Polis said his administration is already talking with local public health authorities about what changes to make in the spring to focus more on people’s economic and social-emotional needs

Josiah Jansen, who works in the pharmacy at Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver, holds up a syringe that will be used to administer Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado will make changes to its coronavirus dial system in the spring to reduce restrictions on businesses and people’s movement once a majority of those age 70 and older are vaccinated, Gov. Jared Polis said.

People older than 70 account for about half of the state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and roughly 75% of its coronavirus deaths. Colorado is planning to vaccinate 70% of people in that age group by the end of February, Polis said in an interview with The Colorado Sun. 

“There will be an intermediary phase where there is enough vaccine in enough people where many of the most vulnerable are protected but the pandemic is still here,” Polis said. “… That changes how we look at hospital capacity and restrictions that hurt people’s emotions and psychology or their ability to support themselves.” 

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That phase will require “a more sustainable and different way of looking at things,” the governor, a Democrat, said. More emphasis will be placed on the social-emotional and economic crises that have paralleled the public health emergency.

Polis didn’t provide any details on what the changes to the dial system may look like, but said discussions with local public health authorities are already underway.

The key, however, will be changing restrictions in a way that doesn’t lead to Colorado’s hospitals being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients. “That is our North Star,” Polis said.

The governor said preliminary discussions also are occurring with local public health officials about the pandemic winding down in late summer and how to handle restrictions at that point. “We’re all super excited about that,” Polis said.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, left, makes a few remarks to the media as he watches Gina Harper, clinical coordinator with pharmacy, reconstitute a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before it is administered to the first patients in Colorado at UC Health Poudre Valley Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020 in Fort Collins. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, Pool)

Polis and his public health team have faced criticism for Colorado’s coronavirus dial system, which uses a county’s COVID-19 metrics — including cases, hospitalizations and test positivity rate — to determine what restrictions should be enacted. In November, the governor dramatically altered the dial system to prevent counties from being forced into lockdown, and then last week allowed some counties to move from level-red restrictions to level-orange restrictions despite their coronavirus metrics indicating more stringent limitations should be kept intact.

These decisions have sparked accusations that Polis is manipulating the restrictions despite the public health situation. The dial system has also been called confusing.

But the governor has defended his actions as being necessary to prevent the economy and people’s mental health from further declining. 

“How do we integrate all of these legitimate needs that people have? The health need, the economic need, the social-emotional and psychological needs,” Polis said of this thinking. 

Polis said those considerations were at play when he decided to move counties from level-red restrictions to level-orange ones.

“(Level red) was never designed to be a level that we could live in for a long period of time,” Polis said. “It’s not a way of life. It’s not sustainable economically. It’s not sustainable socially and emotionally for people. But it is an effective short-term intervention. It helped produce, along with people’s better choices and behavior, reduced infection rates from the high that we experienced in early December.”

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have fallen dramatically since early December, though case numbers are starting to rise again in what has been attributed to a Christmas bump. 


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