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Southern Ute tribal member Tyson Thompson gets his COVID-19 test administered on Jan. 25, 2022, by SunUte Director, Robin Duffy-Wirth, who got trained and certified to assist with administering testing for the tribe. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, The Southern Ute Drum)

Gov. Jared Polis and his public health team on Friday unveiled Colorado’s plan to deal with the ongoing presence of COVID-19 in the state, including by shifting coronavirus care to traditional medical settings.

The plan also calls for ensuring there is a robust — and expanded — health care workforce in Colorado and that there is enough capacity in the state’s medical system to handle a surge of patients should another COVID variant arise.

Finally, Colorado aims to push the federal government to develop a national endemic plan.

Polis’ message to Coloradans during a news conference at the governor’s mansion in downtown Denver was that those who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot should feel comfortable living life as normal. 

“Fully vaccinated Coloradans can rest assured that you are reasonably safe to live your normal pre-pandemic life,” the governor added in a written statement.

Polis, speaking unmasked at the news conference, told vaccinated Coloradans to “live your life — don’t feel guilty.”

He encouraged people who are immunocompromised or otherwise at high risk of becoming seriously ill after contracting COVID to talk to their doctor about receiving a fourth vaccine dose and to continue to take some precautions, including mask wearing.

Children 5 years old and younger still aren’t approved to received a COVID vaccine. Polis said his message to parents of children who fall into that age range is that their kids are at an extremely low risk of falling seriously ill after contracting coronavirus and that he’s hopeful the federal government will approve inoculations for their children soon.

“I’m optimistic that will be approved in the near future,” he said.

The state’s announcement comes as COVID cases and hospitalizations driven by the more contagious omicron variant are declining.

Jill Hunsaker Ryan, who leads the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said that an estimated 90% of Coloradans are immune from getting severely ill from the omicron variant of COVID. Coloradans should feel reasonably safe as a result, even as the threat of new variants looms.

Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander, said Colorado will be prepared to surge its COVID medical capacity again if necessary.

“If the moment requires us to surge, we will have contracts in place so that we can scale mass testing again,” he said. “We will be prepared to do a mass vaccination campaign again if it is required. And we will continue to partner with our emergency management professionals to ensure that we have a modern and up-to-date (personal protective equipment) store.”

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Polis said he fully expects there to be a seasonal impacts from COVID moving forward, but that people being vaccinated and/or previously contracting the virus reduces the risk of emergency measures needing to be taken to slow the spread of coronavirus in the future.

“We enter the future with eyes wide open,” Polis said.

He added that Colorado has begun phasing out its requirement that state workers be vaccinated or regularly get tested for COVID.

The rollout of Colorado’s plan for the next phase of the pandemic comes nearly two years after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the state. Nearly 12,500 people in Colorado who have contracted the virus have died because of it. There have been almost 1.2 million documented infections in the state.

To accomplish its future COVID plans, Colorado plans to move coronavirus testing and treatment out of stadium and church parking lots and into doctors’ offices. It also plans to focus its vaccination efforts on hard-to-reach communities and use wastewater surveillance to continue tracking the spread of the disease.

There are also plans to prepare for the next pandemic by improving air quality in schools and public spaces and by expanding the state’s health care workforce.

Colorado’s announcement on Friday comes as the Biden administration significantly loosened its COVID guidance for Americans.

Most Americans live in places where healthy people, including students in schools, can safely take a break from wearing masks under new U.S. guidelines released Friday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined the new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 is easing its grip, with less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals.

The new system greatly changes the look of the CDC’s risk map and puts more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. Those are the people who can stop wearing masks, the agency said.

The agency is still advising people, including schoolchildren, to wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That’s the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans live.

The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations. The CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces aren’t binding, meaning cities and institutions even in areas of low risk may set their own rules. And the agency says people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive shouldn’t stop wearing masks.

But with protection from immunity rising — both from vaccination and infection — the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower, the CDC said.

“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease. … Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out the volume of disease in their community and make that decision.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....