During a 4 p.m. press conference on April 17, Governor Jared Polis revealed that it's now the law for workers in such settings to wear masks if they're interacting with customers — an order issued in tandem with a get-tough approach intended to address safety loopholes at senior-care facilities of the type that have been linked to close to half of the state's deaths from coronavirus.
Polis began his talk by noting that people who live in such centers are particularly at risk from the virus, which is why Colorado enacted policies restricting visitors and requiring enhanced screening procedures early on, even before the stay-at-home order was instituted in late March. However, he noted, "We're finding compliance is good in some places, spotty in others" — including some facilities where employees aren't always wearing masks and people are congregating in groups larger than recommended by health officials.
To that end, Polis announced an updated public-health order that will require all long-term care facilities to develop a detailed isolation plan to be instituted should an individual test positive, and submit that plan to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment no later than May 1, among other measures. "With so many vulnerable individuals, and also front-line caretakers, in close contact," Polis said, "we need better planning and better protection to stop the spread of the virus in these facilities, particularly as the stay-at-home order and severe restrictions roll off."
Additionally, Polis revealed that the Colorado National Guard will be deployed to test residents and employees at the three largest nursing homes in the state, since an outbreak at such a facility could lead to a devastating toll. After that, smaller facilities will be given the same treatment. The state is becoming "a lot more focused on compliance and enforcement," he stressed. "We need to up the bar."
A video showing stricter screening measures at the centers was intended to illustrate this statement, but when its audio didn't play properly, Polis quickly moved on to "a new executive order around masks." He said that while many people working in health-care facilities and essential businesses such as grocery stores are already wearing masks, such use will no longer be a choice in Colorado: People who work in close proximity to others in such settings will either need to wear a medical mask or a cloth mask that covers their nose and mouth. The only exceptions to this rule will be if a mask interferes with an individual's breathing in a way that would put their health at risk.
"Hopefully, you've been seeing this already," Polis said. "But you are going to see it guaranteed going forward. ... We don't want to prolong the pain for everybody else just because some aren't [wearing masks]. The more people wear masks at these critical workplaces, the more lives will be saved and the sooner we can get the economy growing again."
From there, Polis offered a few pieces of good news. He pointed out that the first round of grants from donations collected at the helpcoloradonow.org website are being distributed today — $4.8 million worth (out of $12 million collected to date). The money will be provided to 206 Colorado organizations in 62 counties across the state, with help also earmarked for workers who, for instance, have been displaced by business closures or lack access to paid sick leave.
In another positive step, Colorado will be able to provide unemployment insurance for what Polis described as "gig workers and independent contractors who've lost revenue because of COVID-19." After receiving guidance from the federal government, state officials will begin taking such applications on Monday, April 20.
Polis has also formed a health-equity team in response to data showing racial inequities when it comes to the virus, "to make sure everybody has the access they need." And he then reiterated some familiar themes regarding outdoor recreation that will no doubt be inspired by improving weather over the weekend: He said that people need to stick to their own local areas rather than traveling to distant spots and to stay "six, ten, twelve feet from others" when they're in public places such as parks.
He also talked about the three-stage plan for reopening Colorado society: urgent, the current phase, followed by stabilization and recovery. In this context, Polis offered a lesson from the Spanish influenza pandemic that struck around a century ago. In Colorado, he recounted, businesses were closed during the first wave of the infection, then reopened too soon — and the second wave proved worse, with one of every 100 people in the state ultimately losing their life to the disease.
"There are more deaths ahead of us than there are behind us when it comes to COVID-19," he warned. "But we want to make sure everyone who contracts it has a fighting chance."