Colorado Republicans Struggle to Grasp Basic Principles of COVID-19 Response

Members of the Colorado National Guard helped administer a drive-up COVID-19 testing site in San Miguel County on March 17.
Members of the Colorado National Guard helped administer a drive-up COVID-19 testing site in San Miguel County on March 17. U.S. National Guard
Colorado Republicans are escalating their attacks on state and federal responses to the spread of COVID-19 — and in the process, they’re continuing to flub basic information about the pandemic as stated by epidemiologists and public-health experts.

In a letter sent to Governor Jared Polis today, March 27, fourteen GOP state senators criticized the governor’s decision to issue a sweeping public-health order on March 25 that mandated the closure of non-essential businesses statewide and directed Coloradans to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

"It is our sincere belief, Governor Polis, that your actions on Wednesday have potentially sown discord and fear in Coloradans that are seeking clarity from their elected officials at this time of despair," reads the letter.

That's the latest shot fired in a growing barrage of GOP criticism directed at state and local officials in Colorado over the drastic actions taken to slow the transmission of COVID-19. Prior to Polis’s statewide order, a letter to Douglas County officials slamming the stay-at-home mandate issued by Tri-County Health officials for three Colorado counties was signed by six Republican lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, who told radio host Peter Boyles that the order reflected a “Gestapo-like mentality.”

Notorious conservative activist Douglas Bruce, architect of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights and a former state lawmaker himself, has even announced that he will hold a "protest picnic" at the Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Colorado Springs on Sunday, March 29, issuing an "open invitation for Mayor [John] Suthers to come arrest me for peaceably assembling with my fellow Americans."

In their March 27 letter to Polis, Republican senators questioned whether the statewide measure was necessary, objecting to the fact that "more comprehensive" data on the virus's spread collected by officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment "has not been shared with the public or with our caucus."

"How can your administration expect Coloradans to have faith in your actions or understand the purpose behind your order, if those facts are not presented to the public?" ask the GOP lawmakers. "If the government is to take drastic action…the very least that we can do is provide the data to back it up."

But the Republicans demanding more detailed data and transparency about the state’s actions haven’t demonstrated an ability to grasp even basic information about the virus, its transmission and the interventions that experts say are necessary to stop it.

Instead, GOP legislators have continued to echo misconceptions about the novel coronavirus that have persisted since the earliest days of the outbreak. In an email to constituents following Polis’s stay-at-home order, Senator Ray Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction, wrote that "the Flu virus has taken many more lives than COVID-19," and that additional data would help soothe public concerns over its spread. Senator Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling made a similar argument in an op-ed for Colorado Politics, writing that the tens of thousands of annual deaths caused by the flu or the 2009 H1N1 outbreak “put [COVID-19] in perspective.”

But COVID-19 is far more infectious, far more deadly and far more likely to require hospitalization than the seasonal flu or previous novel viruses like H1N1. The latest epidemiological analyses, based on data from the virus's spread in Europe, estimate that in the absence of strong social-distancing measures, each person infected with COVID-19 is likely to spread the virus to three people, enabling it to spread exponentially and potentially overwhelm the health-care system if not suppressed.

The Republicans' letter to Polis also questions whether stay-at-home orders needed to be extended statewide, citing publicly released CDPHE testing data showing that 44 out of Colorado's counties have fewer than five confirmed cases. "What is accomplished by closing down the business activity and daily routines of Coloradans living in a county that has fewer than five cases of COVID-19 after weeks of dealing with this crisis?" they ask.

But this objection ignores two of the most important principles of coronavirus response outlined by public-health experts in recent weeks: Inadequate testing means that there are, in fact, far more actual cases than officials are able to confirm, and early intervention is crucial to prevent the spread of a virus with such a high transmission rate. These lessons have been learned over and over again in cities across the country — including in Denver, where Mayor Michael Hancock on March 9 dismissed the need for additional shutdown measures because the city's low number of cases, he said, were evidence that "things are working."

Less than three weeks later, Denver has at least 262 confirmed cases, the largest number of any county in the state and the highest per capita rate outside of the three hard-hit mountain counties identified as hot spots in the early days of the outbreak. And while early outbreaks of COVID-19 were concentrated in coastal population centers like New York and San Francisco, an analysis published today by FiveThirtyEight finds that the number of confirmed cases is now growing fastest in red states, where many Republican governors have been reluctant to implement strict social-distancing measures.

Meanwhile, the federal response to the crisis — mostly aimed at forestalling an economic catastrophe — hasn't escaped criticism from Republicans, either. While the U.S. House of Representatives approved a historic $2 trillion relief package today, March 27, sending it to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature, Representative Ken Buck, a Republican from Windsor and the chair of the Colorado Republican Party, took to the House floor to bash the bill.

"We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself," Buck said, echoing comments made by Trump and other Colorado conservatives this week. "While it is clearly necessary to do something to help our country fight this disease, this bill is not the answer."

Buck's remarks suggest that he, too, is struggling to grasp important information about the pandemic, since he seemingly doesn't understand that the "problem" he's referring to is a virus that, without strong intervention and social-distancing efforts, could kill up to 2.2 million people in the U.S. alone.

Or — what’s worse — maybe he does.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff