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Zornio: Polis is playing with fire, and his mistakes on COVID-19 may lead to a full hospital collapse

As Gov. Jared Polis doubles down on refusing mask and vaccine mandates, a new variant threatens to tip the scales

It’s one thing to claim you follow the science, it’s another to actually do it.

For weeks, Colorado’s hospital system has remained on the “brink of collapse.” It’s the expected result of months of inaction at state and local levels, with business-as-usual policies leading to a potent combination of too many critical care patients — particularly COVID-19 cases among the unvaccinated.

As pleas for help poured in across the state, Gov. Jared Polis called for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Emergency teams have since been deployed at multiple hospitals in an effort to alleviate overwhelmed hospital staff and capacities. 

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

Still, Polis downright refuses the growing calls to enact statewide preventative measures such as mask and vaccine mandates, even from health care workers directly. His position was once again made clear in yet another abominable interview by the governor on Colorado Matters

Yet citing Polis’ increasingly ignorant and callus position proves almost futile. Whether he is unable or unwilling, Polis has made it abundantly clear he does not believe it is his role to help lead the state out of the pandemic, merely to manage the fallouts. Coloradans, it would seem, are on our own.

What is useful, however, is to detail precisely why and how Polis is playing with fire on COVID-19. This way, should the governor’s gamble prove wrong — which it easily could — there is clear documentation showing we knew the risks and he simply chose to ignore them.

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The problem is simple: By refusing to enact statewide preventative measures, Polis has permitted a highly contagious virus to run rampant, thereby maintaining unnecessarily high caseloads and straining our hospital systems to dangerous levels.

This has been problematic in and of itself, but the new and potentially more transmissible omicron variant is now threatening another surge of critically ill patients. This leaves the state’s hospitals in a precarious position — there’s no more room for another wave. 

In an alternate path, had Polis heeded the calls of public health and medical science experts early on to enact statewide precautionary measures, Colorado would currently have far fewer COVID-19 cases clogging up our hospitals. This would have meant we’d have much more room for a new wave, should it come.

Although it’s too early to know with certainty what omicron will bring, there’s reason to believe it poses enough of a risk for a new wave to be credible and preventative action warranted. 

Early evidence suggests omicron is potentially much more transmissible than the current delta variant, likely taking over as the dominant variant in the U.S. within six to eight weeks.

The variant also contains dozens of worrisome mutations on the spike protein — the part of the virus that the vaccine targets. This has led to concerns of reduced vaccine efficacy. 

Even if the vaccine still helps to protect against more severe disease, the ability to transmit the new variant might further increase. This would give way to an overall increase in cases, thereby increasing the number of unvaccinated people infected — the very group at higher risk of needing hospitalizations.

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While it is also true that we do not yet know if omicron is more severe in disease, herein lies the “omicron paradox.” Given a sufficient enough increase in transmissibility — which early data suggests there might be — even a more mild strain of the virus could produce more hospitalizations by reaching an overall greater share of the population more quickly.

Polis’ gamble to declare the medical emergency over and continue to refute precautionary measures has already caused significant struggles for Coloradans.

Yet in the face of the omicron variant, it’s downright irresponsible. While hoping for the best outcome, should hospitals collapse in the coming months due to Polis’ miscalculation, he should be held accountable for these mistakes.


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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