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Opinion Columns

Zornio: Fact-checking Jared Polis on COVID, air quality and taxes

How the governor’s interview on Colorado Matters holds up to the facts. There has been intense debate.

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

Last week, Gov. Jared Polis appeared on Colorado Matters, where he discussed COVID-19, air quality and income taxes. The interview sparked heated debate on social media, leading some to question if the governor was intentionally playing fast and loose with the facts.

Indeed, Polis drew push back for good reason — including from the show’s host, Ryan Warner. While some replies were spot-on, others came off as deflections or outright falsehoods. The following is a fact check of Polis’ key claims during the conversation.


COVID-19 

Claim: FDA scientists who raised questions about booster shots for the general population “resigned in disgrace”

Polis has doubled down on this claim despite multiple top scientific experts explicitly stating otherwise. Among them are the former Food and Drug Administration acting chief scientist Luciano Borio, who tweeted, “FDA is losing two giants” and the former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, Rick Bright, who marked the departure as “A huge global loss.” The current Director for the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Peter Marks also wrote of one scientist, “Contributions throughout her career have been immeasurable, but never more so than during the COVID-19 pandemic,” citing a “huge loss.”

Rated: False

Claim: “The science on the benefit to Americans is clear that the booster boosts [immunity]. So they’re out of their lane at the FDA in trying to look at global health”

One could readily argue that Polis — who is not a scientist or doctor — is much further out of his lane than the FDA scientists are out of theirs. While the primary series data for the vaccine was well established, the clinical benefit and safety data for boosters in the general population remained unclear. It was clearly within the purview of the FDA to evaluate clinical safety and efficacy, as well as weigh the balance of an unclear emergency use for boosters while there raged a global virus that could further mutate to evade current vaccines.

Rated: False

Claim: “About 80% of our schools do require masks” and “Spread in schools that don’t require masks is about a third to 50% higher”

As of Sept. 14, Chalkbeat reported at least 78% of children from preschool to 12th grade are under a mask mandate at school. Additionally, the most recently available data from the state matches the governor’s rough estimates of average to peak transmission.

Rated: True, but at times spread has dipped to about 20% higher in unmasked schools

Claim: “CDC doesn’t require it [masks] for schools” 

Polis is choosing his words carefully, using “require” over “recommend.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does recommend masks be worn in schools by all students, teachers, staff and visitors above age two regardless of vaccination status. There is, however, no official mandate.

Rated: True, although Polis has inadvertently acknowledged a not insignificant portion of Colorado schools are out of line with federal health guidelines — a fact he curiously says does not change his decision on statewide mask mandates.

Claim: “Bottom 10 states for death rate per capita”

Death rates in states have varied throughout the pandemic, and at times Colorado has not been in the bottom 10. However, the latest data support this claim. 

Rated: True at this time


Air quality

Claim: “Colorado had bad air quality as a result of the wildfires”

There’s no doubt Colorado has faced an increase in wildfire smoke, with portions of the state doubling the number of days of smoke in the past four years. However, the state is also shattering records for ozone levels this year, and Polis became audibly defensive and even aggressive while dodging questions about the role of reducing ozone levels. As a result, he came off as very much in the wrong.

Rated: True, rendered false by deliberate omission

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER


Income taxes

Claim: “Every Coloradan feels the lower [taxes] the better”

In perhaps a more minor offense, Polis attempted to speak for the entire state, claiming everyone matches his ideology on taxes. As a Coloradan, I can easily confirm this claim is wrong. I do not agree with his statement outright, nor with Polis’ principle of eliminating the income tax. I do believe taxes ought to be tiered, with fewer taxes for lower and middle income families, and higher taxes for the wealthiest people — for example, a multimillionaire governor.

Rated: False


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.


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