During his May 6 press conference about the COVID-19 crisis, Governor Jared Polis addressed the anger felt by some members of the community over continued restrictions intended to prevent more tragedies from the virus, including assertions that the measures violate individual freedoms.
"Threatening a civil war over decals on the floor" that serve as a guide for proper social distancing "is really offensive to anybody who supports the freedoms and liberties we enjoy in this country," Polis said.
At the start of his talk, Polis noted that May 5 marked two months since the first official death attributed to COVID-19, but he cautioned that the novel coronavirus was likely circulating in Colorado prior to its identification, and may have caused some January deaths that were mistakenly attributed to pneumonia and the like.
Updated figures from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment show 17,816 positive cases and 921 deaths, Polis revealed — but these numbers could easily have been higher. "Modeling was showing tens of thousands of deaths in Colorado and a catastrophic breach of our health-care system," he said. Polis credited the recently ended stay-at-home order, the use of masks, and social distancing of at least six feet in preventing such catastrophes thus far, "but if we slack off, it means more unnecessary deaths of our friends, our loved ones — it might even be yours — and more economic disruption."
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At that point, Polis introduced the University of Colorado's Laura Rosenthal, a registered nurse for more than two decades, as well as vice president of the Colorado Nurses Association, who spoke in sober terms about the pandemic. "It's not an old-people disease or a sick-people disease," she stressed. "Those populations are more susceptible, but it affects all people. I've treated people as young as 25 and as old as 99. I've treated a previously health 32-year-old man who was struggling to breathe. I've seen entire families hospitalized."
Following a wrenching tale about a husband who'd never spent a day away from his wife since their marriage fighting for his life alone in an intensive-care unit "because you can't bring anyone with you," she confirmed that "there is still the potential for rapid increase in disease spread" if measures that have been successful to date are abandoned prematurely. "Now is the most crucial time to remain diligent," she argued.
After saluting Rosenthal and her fellow nurses (today is National Nurse Day), and pointing out that their infection rates are among the highest of any profession, Polis provided an inventory update for personal-protective equipment on hand in the state: 2,472,205 surgical masks, 195,019 gowns, 1,640,100 gloves and 534,474 N95 masks. To date, 7,413 eye protectors, 85,521 masks, 388,783 gloves and 77,840 gowns have been provided to nursing homes, where so many outbreaks have taken place. Moreover, one Battelle Sterilization System, which allows N95 masks to be reused, is already in operation and a second is about to open, which will help the state stretch its current supply even further.
Toward the end of his opening remarks, Polis addressed an online question about masks being "nasty"; he reminded the commenter that they should be washed daily. Then he took on a person who'd written: "I didn't escape a brutal regime that made us slaves of fear just to come to this home of the brave to be a slave of fear."
"It's not a time to be a slave of fear," Polis emphasized, adding that "you're free — but you need to exercise your own personal responsibility. That's the flip side of the coin of freedom: personal responsibility to yourself and others."
The first inquiry from a reporter touched on a similar topic — a threat of civil war made to Tri-County Health Board members if there isn't an end to restrictions addressing COVID-19.
"We are a free country, and we appreciate our freedoms," Polis allowed before likening the situation to restaurant inspections prior to the virus's arrival. Back then, eateries were regularly inspected and some earned terrible grades. "It's not your right to go to a restaurant that's an F," he maintained. "It's about us making sure restaurants that do business are doing it in as safe a way as possible."
As for "the few Coloradans who feel their liberties are being threatened," Polis asked that they follow local and state guidelines intended to keep everyone safe "whether you agree or disagree with counties that require masks in stores."
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Polis also spoke sharply about deaths at nursing homes and senior centers: "If the federal government had made testing available earlier, we could have begun testing asymptomatic workers at those facilities earlier and potentially prevented some of those fatalities," he contended. "There's still not enough testing to do it once a week for every employee at a senior-care facility. We're not there. We've been through the first round, starting with larger facilities, but they're only as good as a moment in time to test some of those workers to see if they're contagious and asymptomatic."
Likewise, Polis made clear his disappointment that JBS USA, owner of a meat plant in Greeley that was the site of an enormous outbreak linked to multiple deaths, decided to reopen without testing all of its employees; instead, the company closed the operation for fourteen days of cleaning. Testing was recently provided for free near the plant, and he said the state would happily partner with the firm to do more. "We'll work with them or around them, if needed," he said.
Finally, Polis addressed reports that El Paso County wants permission to allow in-person graduations, as long as families don't attend and students are kept at a proper distance. "I think what's important as a state is that we celebrate this rite of passage for graduating seniors, especially first-generation high school graduates," if it can be done without undue risk, he said.
No telling if this willingness to compromise qualifies as freedom to Polis's critics, who are getting more boisterous with each passing day.