Polis Bans Gatherings of 250-Plus Over COVID-19, Three Patients Critical

Colorado Governor Jared Polis provided a COVID-19 update.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis provided a COVID-19 update. @GovofCO
Editor's note: Several hours after the publication of this post, at just shy of 3 p.m. on March 13, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment revealed the initial fatality in Colorado from COVID-19. Get details in our post "Colorado Announces State's First COVID-19 Death." Continue for our previous coverage.

During a press conference about COVID-19 in Colorado on the morning of March 13, Governor Jared Polis temporarily banned most gatherings of 250 people or more, and also revealed that eight people who've tested positive for the virus are currently hospitalized, with three in critical condition. "It is just a matter of time before we have our first fatality here in Colorado," he said.

Polis waited until near the end of his prepared remarks to address the question of large events, noting that the state was offering "additional emergency guidance for the cancellation of gatherings over 250" unless organizers can provide evidence of steps that will allow attendees to remain at least six feet away from others — an example of social distancing that's currently considered a key safety measure to prevent the further spread of the virus.

In addition, Polis urged churches and other houses of worship that typically attract fewer than 250 to encourage the elderly or those with pre-existing medical conditions — a group considered the most at risk from COVID-19 — "to make alternate plans to attending in person." He acknowledged that this edict "can be devastating to trips, celebrations, graduations, conferences, social gatherings and congregations...but we are in the middle of one of the greatest public-health disasters of our lifetime, and it's critical for us to take it seriously."

He added, "Of course, we want to promote awareness, but not panic.... We want to ensure that we don't exceed the capacity of our health system, and do what we can through best practices and social distancing" in order to make sure the most vulnerable Coloradans are protected.

At the outset of his remarks, Polis reiterated a comment he'd made at a March 11 press conference: "This is going to get worse before it gets better." Then he offered up the current COVID-19 statistics: 72 positive cases in Colorado, including at least four that are evidence of community spread in the metro area — meaning that the individuals impacted don't appear to have been infected by another person known to have the virus. Polis had previously suggested that Denver was at "a tipping point" in terms of community spread. Now officials are formally listing it alongside Aspen and other high-country locations where community spread is already taking place.

After mentioning the likelihood of Colorado's first COVID-19 death, Polis stressed that "within the context of the different fatality rates across different age groups, there's a very low incidence among the young and significantly higher for people in their seventies and eighties."

Thus far, over 90 percent of people who've been tested for the virus in Colorado — including more than 650 analyzed at a drive-up lab in Denver that will remain closed today because of snow — actually were found to be suffering from only a cold or the seasonal flu. But Polis conceded that "most likely there are hundreds or thousands of Coloradans" who have the virus.

This situation was exacerbated by a poor federal response, Polis maintained. "The lack of early action out of Washington to assure the availability of mass testing has put the health of many of our most vulnerable at high risk," he said, adding that he had personally conveyed this message to Vice President Mike Pence, who's overseeing the COVID-19 response on behalf of the Trump administration. But Polis then asserted that "we can't dwell on what happened a month or two ago. This isn't political."

New actions by the governor's office include a collaboration with Mile High United Way to create a COVID-19 website that will likely be launched next week, and a directive to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies to "cut through red tape" when it comes to granting approvals for medical professionals, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, who are licensed in other states but are now living or staying here. Moreover, he said, Colorado has "contracted with dozens of nurses from out of state, as well as in-state, to help communities hit hardest," and is asking "doctors and nurses not currently in the workforce, who are doing something else or are retired or are working in another field but still have a license that's active or that can be activated, to connect with their former employer in the event that we need surge capacity."

These last efforts are intended to prevent Colorado's current health system from becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. If that happens, Polis pointed out, the ability of hospitals to provide other life-saving services related to such challenges as heart attacks and strokes could be hampered.

This is a difficult time for parents, with students whose schools may be temporarily closed (Denver Public Schools just announced a three-week break, and Denver's libraries and rec centers are closing, too) and employers needing to figure out ways to arrange for its charges to work from home, Polis admitted. But in his view, "The public-health consequences, the human consequences, need to remain our primary focus. This is how we're going to weather the storm."
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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