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COVID-19 Update: Where Colorado Really Is on Testing

Governor Jared Polis during a recent 9News interview.
Governor Jared Polis during a recent 9News interview.
9News via YouTube

As promised, Governor Jared Polis focused his April 29 press conference about the continuing fight against COVID-19 on testing, endeavoring to provide the latest information on the state's status regarding this key weapon against the novel coronavirus. While his presentation was positive, he made it clear that testing on demand is still a ways off, even though the stay-at-home order has been replaced by the new Safer at Home program.

The latest data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shared by Polis shows 14,735 positive cases, a total of 2,620 hospitalizations and 760 deaths. But he asserted that the daily growth rate of cases is continuing to decline, registering 2.8 percent in the most recent analysis. Likewise, the growth rate of hospitalizations is much lower than in previous weeks and was at .4 percent as of yesterday, April 28.

Polis reiterated the Safer at Home schedule of events for the state as a whole, including developments slated to take place on May 1 and May 4. (Denver and other area counties have extended their stay-at-home orders to May 8.) He also discussed the importance of masks for customers as well as store employees — and name-checked Walmart, whose branch at 14000 East Exposition Avenue in Aurora was briefly closed last week after an outbreak took the lives of at least three people, including a full-time staffer.

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The governor also talked about improved progress against the virus if a social-distancing rate of 65 percent is maintained in the coming months. Lower percentages mean a greater possibility of the intensive-care-unit bed supply being exceeded, he stressed.

At that point, Polis dug into specifics about testing. He revealed that 69,449 tests have been conducted to date in Colorado, with the current daily average hovering around 3,000 — a significant achievement, he maintained, since the state was managing to test only about 160 people per day at the beginning of its pandemic response, just under two months ago. (These numbers correspond to nasal testing; Polis hinted that saliva testing may also be available soon.) Staffing and lab capacity have also increased "twenty-fold," he allowed, adding that the state would now be able to hit the 10,000 tests-per-day mark if not for "significant supply constraints."

The latter situation should be improving soon, Polis said. Thanks to acquisitions made independently as well as supplies pledged by the federal government, he calculated that Colorado has around 15,000 nasal swabs on hand, and that total should rise to 147,000 by May 11 and 195,000 by May 31. And while the supply of reagent used for extracting viral RNA currently stands at 20,000, he sees bumps to 117,000 and 195,000 units by May 11 and May 31, respectively. The state has 100,000 units of the detection reagent now, he noted, with expectations of hitting 147,000 by May 11 and 195,000 by May 31.

If all of these benchmarks are met, Polis believes that Colorado will see 5,000 tests per day by May 1 and 8,500 tests per day by the end of May. Just as important, test processing will go much faster; what once took four or five days is now happening in one. The state does have a limited supply of tests that provide results in fifteen minutes, but according to Polis, they're less accurate — around 70 percent or even under, compared to 85 to 95 percent reliability.

As for antibody testing, Polis portrayed the procedure, which shows whether a person may have previously had COVID-19, as most important from a research perspective, particularly given that scientists don't yet know how much protection the antibodies offer and for how long. But he lauded studies under way at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, plus research looking at the role of children in transmission, exposure among front-line health-care workers and more.

Visual aids during a portion of Polis's presentation showed the gear that must be worn by those testing employees at senior centers and long-term care facilities: personal protective equipment including an N95 mask, gloves, goggles or a face shield and a gown. Also vital, he said, is the actual testing equipment and the staff to run it and interpret the results; the state's epidemiological team has been boosted from 31 to 56 people in around three weeks.

These experts will be able to improve and expand the system for contact tracing — outreach to people who may have worked with or had recent contact with someone who tested positive. On that note, Polis touted a website accessible at cosymptomtracker.com, where people can enter the symptoms they're experiencing and find out what steps should be taken; more than 1,000 Coloradans have already done so.

To increase the availability of testing, Polis pledged to increase the number and variety of sites around the state, including local, community-based settings, plus targeted testing in places where outbreaks are detected. Polis noted that of 882 individuals tested during recent days in Weld County — arguably the most defiant jurisdiction when it comes to his Safer at Home approach — 124 positives were registered, including 34 for people who were asymptomatic.

Similar results were found during testing at four high-risk facilities. Of 1,171 tests taken, 99 people were positive, 33 of them asymptomatic. During May and June, Polis said, the state is hoping to run 45,000 tests at senior facilities and the like — actions that will require 85,000 masks, 388,000 gloves, 7,800 gowns and 10,000 eye protectors.

Not that universal testing is on the horizon. Right now, testing is being limited to symptomatic health-care or front-line workers, symptomatic hospital and nursing-home patients, some symptomatic community members and those senior-center workers. As of May 15, that roster should broaden with the addition of all symptomatic community members and, on a scheduled basis, more asymptomatic nursing-home residents. Asymptomatic Coloradans of other backgrounds aren't on the list at this point.

Toward the end of his prepared remarks, Polis answered some questions submitted online. One person accused him of violating the Constitution by not fully reopening the state; he said he was in the midst of doing just that, but that a phased-in procedure was necessary for safety's sake. He also denied an accusation that the state has picked winners and losers among businesses that are allowed to operate, arguing that closures were aimed at operations such as bars, clubs and restaurants, where the dangers of large-scale infections were greatest. And to someone who felt he should simply make mask-wearing the law for everyone, he instead complimented those businesses that have decided not to admit patrons without a face covering.

He then suggested signs that read, "No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service."

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