COVID-19 Update: Denver Needs More Testing Before It Can Reopen

Mayor Michael Hancock addressing the media during an April 24 press conference.
Mayor Michael Hancock addressing the media during an April 24 press conference.
During an April 24 news conference about COVID-19, Mayor Michael Hancock avoided negative comments about Governor Jared Polis's decision to end Colorado's stay-at-home order on April 26. Instead, Hancock said that he had decided to extend Denver's order to May 8 partly to allow the city time to ramp up testing, which others have criticized Polis for not emphasizing enough.

The city's immediate goal is to conduct 1,000 tests per day, and Hancock believes that's achievable.

Early on in his remarks, he shared a comment he said he'd made to his children: "We must do what we need to do now so we can do what we want to do later."

Residents of Denver "are anxious about what next week will look like," Hancock acknowledged. But he stressed that the city's stay-at-home order, which had previously stretched through April 30 (four days beyond Polis's) had never been about stopping COVID-19 completely. Rather, the approach involved "a targeted bending of the curve of infections and hospitalizations so our health-care system could avoid being overwhelmed by desperately sick people."

Thanks to the orders, Hancock continued, "many indicators show we are making progress. But our long-term public-health challenges continue," as indicated by the latest data from Denver Public Health, which revealed 32 deaths in the city in a two-day period and rising curves related to COVID-19 cases.

The likely reasons for these developments include "our population size, our density, our demographics, the number and sizes of our businesses and the number of entertainment and sports venues," Hancock said.

Given that Denver-specific metrics "suggest we are not completely out of the woods," he explained that he ultimately determined that extending the stay-at-home order to May 8 would provide "a little more time to scale up our testing capacity," as well as to "give residents and businesses the guidance they're asking for."

This is necessary, Hancock contended, "since we lack a coherent national strategy that supports testing. It's up to cities and states to do what Washington can't seem to manage. ... And the governor confirmed to me yesterday that more testing is on the way to our state."

Getting to 1,000 daily tests for the novel coronavirus is realistic, Hancock suggested, because Denver Health is already at a 750-tests-per-day capacity point. Now the city is working on what he called "a coordinated approach" that will make testing accessible for all the citizens of Denver who need it, starting with those showing symptoms and extending to employees whose businesses want to confirm that no infections are present before they start operating again. The latter should increase public confidence and make people more comfortable to start patronizing such enterprises again, he argued.

Without testing and improved contact tracing, Hancock continued, Denver risks future outbreaks, including a wave of new infections during the 2020-2021 winter flu season.

Bob McDonald, Denver Public Health Administrator and executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, echoed these observations. The city is currently building out a workforce of more than 100 people to tackle "an enhanced testing protocol," he said. Now, officials need to get the message out to a public that had previously been warned against showing up at medical facilities for tests that the capacity has improved and testing opportunities have expanded significantly.

Finally asked if Polis is moving too fast to reopen the state, Hancock replied, "The governor is responding to data, just as we are. I believe that's why they're taking the appropriate approach to roll this out — to ease ourselves back into this slowly. But my optics are focused on Denver and the uniqueness of our economy."

Hancock is also hoping to avoid confusion, as the public is now hearing two very different dates that stay-at-home orders will end. To clarify, he said, "The current order we're under will remain in place in Denver until May 8...and you may see other cities in the area be part of the same strategy moving forward."

As this comment implies, Denver is not the only municipality in Colorado reluctant to lift the lockdown on April 26.