COVID-19 Update: How Polis Is Trying to Prevent 33K Colorado Deaths

Colorado Governor Jared Polis during a recent appearance on MSNBC.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis during a recent appearance on MSNBC. MSNBC via YouTube
During a press conference at Colorado's Emergency Operations Center in Centennial on the afternoon of March 27, Governor Jared Polis essentially took the state's residents through a PowerPoint presentation to explain how he and other officials hope to reduce fatality rates from the COVID-19 virus by way of methods such as social distancing.

Without these approaches, and assuming the highest likely infection percentage using current data, Polis said the state could suffer as many as 33,200 deaths by June 1.

Polis began his talk by highlighting some recent orders intended to cut red tape and regulations, including new measures that will allow restaurants to use laid-off individuals who'd been busing tables or working as waitstaff to serve as delivery drivers — something that wouldn't have been possible under previous rules.

Next, Polis addressed questions about whether Coloradans will actually abide by the stay-at-home order that he recently put in place for the entire state. "This is not a competition to see what you can get away with," he stressed. "This is not a time to figure out how close you can get to the line." Instead, he wants citizens to compete to see how they can limit the most contacts with friends, acquaintances and strangers: "That's the contest. ... If you have to ask yourself if something is smart, it's probably not."

Then, directly referring to the Emergency Operations Center, he encouraged folks to treat the pandemic "like you would a tornado or a flood or a wildfire or a hurricane. It's every bit as serious, and the loss of life is going to be far greater than some of these events we've experienced here in Colorado."

The stay-at-home mandate "is law," he noted. "The foundation of our society is the rule of law." To that end, Polis urged residents who think that an establishment is violating his order to contact local law enforcement or a public-health department — and if they don't get satisfaction from those agencies, there's always the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

After that, Polis referenced the mob of visitors to areas such as Loveland Pass, where skiers congregated in large numbers last weekend — and police forces are already girding for something similar over the next couple of days. "If you need to recreate, do it in a community close to home," Polis said. "This is not a vacation, just like a tornado or flood is not a vacation. It's not a time to drive two or three hours to a mountain community." Doing so qualifies as "really dumb," since those locations have a higher rate of infections than most other places in Colorado, he noted. Besides, "trails are often narrow, and you need to be six feet apart. You need to focus on staying home and see this as a challenge as to how fast we can get over this and get back to normal."

Following a salute to those houses of worship that are using innovative methods to reach their respective flocks remotely rather than in person, and reminding businesses identified as critical that they still need to comply with social-distancing recommendations, Polis rolled into what he called "hard data," including the latest statistics from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:

As of today, March 27, there are 1,734 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Colorado, 239 hospitalizations and 31 deaths — seven more than yesterday. The total number of people tested exceeds 11,000, but rather than boasting about this accomplishment, Polis shrugged it off, saying that the key indicator is "how many people need to be hospitalized and need medical intervention to save their lives." Moreover, he underscored that individuals from every age demographic have been affected, even though more people above age sixty have died than have members of younger groups.

At this point, Polis got even more technical, beginning with his citations of R0, pronounced "R naught" — defined by as "a mathematical term that indicates how contagious an infectious disease is. It’s also referred to as the reproduction number. As an infection spreads to new people, it reproduces itself."

Based on data collected in Colorado to date, Polis said that experts believe COVID-19 in the state has a value of R03 or R04, meaning that each person with the virus will likely infect either three or four others, respectively. "We hope it's closer to three," Polis added, since the spread of infection is much higher for R04 and could well result in many more casualties.

According to Polis, COVID-19 has a "lag factor" of four to five days from exposure to symptoms, some of which may be minor — or individuals could be entirely asymptomatic. From the onset of symptoms to admission to an intensive-care unit for those stricken most severely is calculated at another ten to twelve days, with the average ICU stay approximately eight days more.

The various orders put forward in recent weeks have had varying impacts on increasing social distancing, he said: a 25 to 40 percent improvement after the shutdown of schools, restaurants and bars; a 40 to 60 percent boost upon calling for workforces to be cut in half and temporarily blocking gatherings of more than ten people; and an 80 percent hike owing to the stay-at-home order. The full impact of these measures is expected to be felt beginning on March 28, and continuing through April 7.

In the meantime, Colorado has 1,849 ICU beds right now. Polis said that he wants to add another 1,000 by May, with an additional 5,000 available by the summer — and then he returned to the R-naught calculus to explain how important this goal is. If infections in Colorado are closer to R04 and there was no social distancing, the state would need 13,800 ICU beds at the peak of demand, but just 9,400 beds with 40 percent social distancing, 7,300 beds by late May with 50 percent social distancing, and 4,500 beds by June with 60 percent social distancing.

Fatalities would also climb faster under R04: 33,200 deceased by June 1 in a state where the typical death rate is about 100 people per day, Polis revealed. With 40 percent social distancing, the casualty number would be 26,000. With 50 percent social distancing, it would be around 19,000. And with 60 percent social distancing, it would be 11,500, a total larger than the population in 46 of Colorado's counties. "Those aren't just statistics," Polis said. "They're people."

An R-naught of three would mean many fewer tragedies: 23,000 deaths with no social distancing, 1,600 deaths with 40 percent social distancing, 800 deaths with 50 percent social distancing, and 400 deaths with 60 percent social distancing. "Those would be the peaks," Polis explained, "and part of what social distancing achieves is pushing off the peak. The peak still comes, but it delays it as well as reducing the severity."

The difference between these extremes is one reason that Polis issued the stay-at-home order on March 25. He called it "a blunt-force instrument," but says it was necessary to return society to closer to normal, at least, as quickly as possible: "The more we can hammer down that R-naught value, the more time we have to add capacity and reduce the spread."

But he also warned that even if that reduction happens, the virus won't be eliminated. Rather, it will "still be with us, and additional precautions will be put in place as part of that new normal." Success, in his view, would be similar to what's presently happening in South Korea, where the economy is functioning even as infections are dealt with "case-by-case or cluster-by-cluster instead of by widespread shutdowns."

Some critics have suggested that he's gone too far, Polis acknowledged, but he'd prefer to err on the side of too much preparation than not enough. "I would rather have more masks at the end of this than having people without masks and more people dying," he said.

"We want to prepare for the worst-case scenario, and we hope that we can be effective — and we hope that we can prevent that worst-case scenario for the state of Colorado."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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