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Colorado Governor Jared Polis makes a point during a news conference to update the state's status in dealing with the new coronavirus Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

A frustrated Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday all but ruled out issuing a new statewide mask order to curb sharply rising coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, saying that the responsibility instead lies with those who are unvaccinated against the virus to protect themselves.

“The patience of most Coloradans is wearing very thin about why we should keep wearing masks just to protect the 20% of folks who haven’t taken the simple step to protect themselves,” the governor said during a briefing with reporters. 

Colorado now has the fifth-highest coronavirus case rate in the country, according to federal data. An estimated 1 in 51 Coloradans are currently contagious with COVID-19 as people hospitalized with the disease has surpassed 1,200 — the highest level since December 2020. About 80% of people hospitalized in the state with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

There are fewer than 150 intensive care beds available statewide, and a 17-county region in southwest Colorado on Tuesday reported 0% available ICU capacity, though that percentage can change quickly in the region’s small hospitals.

In response to the alarming trends — more than 2,600 new coronavirus infections are now being reported per day in Colorado, a roughly 600% increase from case rates in July — Polis over the weekend issued executive orders giving the state greater authority to direct transfers of patients between hospitals and also laying the legal groundwork for hospitals to ration care if they become overwhelmed.

The state has also asked for federal emergency medical teams to come to Colorado to help with staffing shortages in the state’s hospitals. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Sunday ordered hospitals to suspend cosmetic surgeries in order to free up staff and bed space; some hospitals have already gone further, delaying needed but non-emergency procedures.

Asked Tuesday if he intended to issue more proactive orders to slow the spread of the virus, Polis balked. He said a statewide mask order isn’t a substitute for vaccination. He said it’s time for the unvaccinated to “quit procrastinating.”

Nearly 80% of people eligible for vaccination in Colorado have received at least one dose of vaccine. No one under the age of 40 who has been fully vaccinated has died of COVID-19 in Colorado, Polis said, and death rates are dramatically lower for vaccinated people in older age groups.

“The 20% that haven’t yet chosen to get protected are putting themselves at risk — which you can certainly argue is their own business, and I have no qualm if they have a death wish — but they are clogging our hospitals,” Polis said.

While Colorado’s current COVID hospitalizations are about two-thirds of what they were during the state’s winter surge last year, more people are now hospitalized in Colorado for other reasons — car accidents, heart attacks and issues caused by delayed medical care. The state’s hospitals have not been more full during the pandemic.

Dr. Rachel Herlihy said modeling estimates predict hospitalizations will peak later this month or early next month and are not expected to exceed the state’s capacity on the current trajectory. But, if virus transmission increases further, the state could see its hospital capacity breached.

“As you can see with the projections, it’s going to be tight,” Polis said. “It is tight, and it’s going to be tight for the next several weeks.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:10 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, to correct the number of counties in the region of southwestern Colorado that were showing 0% available ICU capacity. It is 17 counties.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...

John Ingold

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...