COVID-19 Update: Social Distancing Will Be With Coloradans for Months

Jared Polis being screened for COVID-19, as seen in video by Fox31's Joe St. George that the governor re-tweeted.
Jared Polis being screened for COVID-19, as seen in video by Fox31's Joe St. George that the governor re-tweeted. @JoeStGeorge
During an April 15 press conference offering updates on the COVID-19 response, Governor Jared Polis made it clear that if his current stay-at-home order for the state ends on April 26, as currently scheduled, social distancing and many other restrictions will remain in place well into the summer and quite possibly beyond.

"Two months, three months, ten months — however long it is until there's a cure or a vaccine," Polis said. "But it has to be sustainable."

Such comments were clearly intended to lay the groundwork for the lifting of the stay-at-home order while managing expectations. Polis stressed that "we can't simply go back to the way things were a few months ago," but with hard work and careful planning, "we will be able to introduce a balance" that "will get the economy moving and bring back a sustainable level of social interaction. It won't be what it was, but it will be better than it is now" while we await a medical solution to the spread of the novel coronavirus, he said.

Polis opened his remarks by talking about conversations he's had with governors of neighboring states, offering praise for those leaders even if they haven't issued stay-at-home orders; Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska have all resisted these statewide edicts. He said he expects all of the states will share resources if virus peaks lead to shortages of equipment in some places and surpluses in others.

At that point, Polis referenced new data being made public, including more details about the ethnic and racial makeup of those who are thrust into a health crisis by the virus, as well as information on hospitalizations and release dates, and specifics about infections at assorted senior centers and similar facilities. Along the way, he emphasized, "The virus isn't going to disappear anytime soon. We need a way of life that's sustainable psychologically, economically and socially. We know that staying at home is a horrific thing for the economic devastation it can cause." Moreover, he noted, "we're social animals," so it's very difficult for children to be prevented from visiting their grandparents and friends unable to spend time in close proximity with each other. But for now, we need to keep following public-health guidance because "we don't want to forfeit our lives."

Hundreds of Coloradans have already done so. In a midday update from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Polis revealed the latest figures: 8,253 positive or presumptive-positive cases, 1,624 hospitalizations and 348 deaths. He expressed condolences to the friends, family and loved ones of those who have lost their lives to COVID-19.

To prevent more tragedies of this sort, Polis said that social-distancing measures and the like will need to be implemented when it comes to "the way we work and play for a matter of months, until there's a vaccine or effective clinical therapy or, someday, herd immunity, which only happens if a significant number of the public is infected." As a result, he explained, we'll need to adapt in real time to the latest data, looking at what policies work and don't work and making changes accordingly to follow best practices while allowing people to "earn a paycheck and have some opportunity to recreate outside."

The governor described the state's approach as a multi-step process. We're currently in the urgent phase, requiring "draconian" measures such as the stay-at-home order. How long we will remain in this period is likely to be determined over the next four or five days, during which time data will be critical, he allowed. Afterward, we should have a better idea if we've achieved social distancing in the 80 percent range — and if we haven't, the urgent phase could be extended.

Even if the 80 percent level has been hit, however, "We want to dispel the notion that we can immediately go back to the way things were in January or February," Polis said. Restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses were put in place gradually, he continued, and they'll likely be relaxed in a similar way. These measures can't be turned on and off like a light switch, he continued; rather, the effect will be more like a light dimmer, in which they'll fade out at different times, when the data supports doing so.

After the urgent phase concludes, the state will move into what Polis called "the stabilization phase," when Coloradans will ease back into economic activity in ways that are socially and psychologically advantageous without returning us to a point where "the deaths are piling up." Many of these strategies will remain in place until the point when an effective vaccine becomes a reality. Some experts think that could take twelve to eighteen months, he acknowledged, but scientists around the world, including at Colorado State University, are moving ahead quickly, and Polis said that he expects great things. At the same time, though, he made it clear that medications offering modest improvements won't do the trick. Instead, we need "more of a definitive cure, in the way penicillin cures strep throat."

As this is going on, Polis explained, the state will work hard on a simultaneous phase: increasing the capacity for testing and putting additional protections in place for those most at risk, including seniors and folks with pre-existing health conditions. Analysis of data will also be ongoing, and officials will determine if they can allow greater freedoms or whether they must reinstate measures, possibly including stay-at-home orders.

When non-essential businesses are allowed to reopen, Polis predicted that they will have to follow social- distancing procedures of the sort that are presently taking place in most grocery stores. That also means procedures some may have thought would be temporary could become the norm — among them increased telecommuting and the staggering of work shifts, to reduce the number of people working at the same time.

"We wish we had a magic wand, so that we could get back to the way life was," Polis admitted. Instead, we'll have to rely on science, he noted: "We have a talented group of people in our state, at the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and across the world who are using the tools we have, as imperfect and limited as they are, to prevent catastrophic death and get us back to as much normalcy as we can as soon as we can."
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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.
Contact: Michael Roberts