Governor Jared Polis announcing the end of public-health orders against COVID-19 on July 8; then-President George W. Bush delivering his 2003 "Mission Accomplished" speech from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.colorado.gov/Associated Press via YouTube
Governor Jared Polis wasn't standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier during his July 8 video message announcing that he has rescinded all health emergency executive edicts regarding COVID-19 in favor of the Colorado COVID-19 Disaster Recovery Order, which focuses on what's been branded the "Colorado comeback." But his remarks still managed to recall what's become known as the 2003 Mission Accomplished speech, named for the banner hanging behind then-President George W. Bush as he prematurely celebrated American success in Iraq.
Bush didn't actually use the "mission accomplished" phrase in his remarks, instead stressing that "Our mission continues" and noting that "We have difficult work to do in Iraq." Likewise, Polis acknowledged that "COVID-19 is still here and will likely always be a part of our lives."
But the announcement as a whole, delivered in the days leading up to the July 13 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, had the tone of a victory declaration — even if the win being celebrated was public officials' confidence that the state's hospital capacity is no longer in danger of being overwhelmed.
The policy pivot puts the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in a tricky position. The agency continues to closely track data related to COVID-19, including current hospitalizations, which have been stuck between 300 and 400 for weeks; 368 were reported on July 8. Moreover, the more transmissible Delta variant continues to spread at a concerning pace. On July 2, Delta variant cases had been confirmed in 36 of Colorado's 64 counties; a week later, that number is up to 40. The department estimates that 71.43 percent of infections reported during the week of June 27 involved the Delta variant. And according to the state's vaccine data dashboard, fewer than 50 percent of eligible residents in 27 counties have received their first dose.
Despite some less-than-rosy stats, the department is careful not to contradict Polis's positive message, as evidenced by the answers to questions we posed yesterday about the current state of the fight against the disease.
"Does the CDPHE expect hospitalizations in the hundreds to continue for months to come, and perhaps still be in that range at year's end?" we asked. The ultra-indirect response from department rep Gabi Johnston: "The vast majority of hospitalizations involve individuals who have not yet been vaccinated. With the spread of the Delta variant, which we believe is more transmissible and can cause more serious illness, unvaccinated individuals are at a greater risk of serious illness. The best protection against COVID-19 is getting vaccinated. All the vaccines offer protection against variants."
Will the state's hospital system be stressed, if not overwhelmed, should COVID-19 admissions remain in the hundreds throughout 2021 and perhaps beyond? "As more Coloradans get vaccinated, overall hospitalizations are likely to decrease accordingly, except in areas where vaccination rates are low and disease transmission is high," Johnston allowed. But the CDPHE also offered this quote from Polis's video: "Our hospital capacity is no longer in jeopardy and the safe, effective, free vaccine is widely available to everyone."
While responding to our queries, Johnston mentioned a related concern: "As restrictions have lifted and fewer people are wearing masks, we are seeing an increase in other respiratory illnesses and anticipate this year’s flu season to be more active than in 2020. Combined, those illnesses will create an overall increase in hospitalizations. We want everyone to get their flu shot, and all Coloradans ages twelve and up to get vaccinated so we can ensure continued hospital capacity for Coloradans, whether they may need care for COVID-19, another respiratory virus, or any other illness."
The CDPHE doesn't want anyone to think COVID-19 is on the path to total eradication. "We believe that COVID-19 disease transmission will continue for the foreseeable future," Johnston conceded. "This is a global pandemic and transmission worldwide will continue to affect the United States. In addition, as we continue to work to vaccinate eligible Coloradans, disease transmission will continue among the unvaccinated. The significant increase in spread of the variants also gives COVID-19 more of a stronghold."
Under that scenario, could annual COVID-19 vaccinations be in our future? "We won’t know how long immunity lasts until we have more data from over time," Johnston responded. "Experts are trying to learn more about both natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity of COVID-19 to determine if/when booster shots are needed. We are monitoring for updated information and guidance from the CDC and FDA and are beginning to plan for that stage of this response."
Until then, Johnston emphasized, "Vaccination is the best protection against COVID-19, including the Delta variant. We encourage all Coloradans ages twelve and up to get vaccinated. Every Coloradan should feel comfortable making the right choices for themselves and weigh their own comfort and risk. Anyone who is not fully vaccinated should continue to wear a mask, practice physical distancing, wash their hands frequently and limit gatherings with people outside of their households." Additionally, "anyone, regardless of vaccination status, who develops symptoms should get tested immediately and isolate."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.