Governor Jared Polis's December 1 press conference on the state's response to the COVID-19 crisis would have been noteworthy under any circumstances. After all, Polis is in quarantine after testing positive on Thanksgiving weekend (his partner, Marlon Reis, has also tested positive), and this was the first time he'd spoken publicly about his personal situation. But interest in Polis's remarks was amplified by the presence of a special guest: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and America's top infectious-disease specialist.
"I am grateful to report that both of us continue to do well — very mild symptoms," Polis said after thanking the public for their good wishes. "This is such a lottery when you get this thing."
Polis and Reis are in the 40-to-64-year-old demographic that accounts for the most hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Colorado currently, and statistics suggest that they have a one in twelve chance of requiring admission to such a facility. "We're hopeful we'll be among the eleven of twelve, but not everyone will be," Polis notes, given "the nature of math, the nature of statistics." Of those cases severe enough to require hospitalization, "many will make it out...after a challenging recovery, and some won't."
He conceded, "I'm certainly not out of the woods, nor is Marlon. As we know, this can take a different turn."
As for how he and Reis became infected, Polis pointed out that approximately one of every 41 Coloradans is carrying the virus right now. "There are exposures I know about, and also exposures I didn't know about" that might have resulted in him catching COVID-19 — but he suggested that his situation is no different from anyone else's. After all, he said, "If you're around forty people in a grocery store, chances are that one of them is contagious."
When his turn came, Fauci expressed sympathy for Polis. "You're a strong guy," he said. "Your constituents should know you're putting on a strong face."
He then discussed the pandemic in general, stressing that Colorado is not alone in seeing cases spike. Fauci mentioned early viral waves in New York and other areas along the Atlantic Coast during the late winter and spring, as well as another upswing among Southern and Western states that "were trying to reopen their economies" a few months later. During that period, daily case rates numbering between 40,000 and 60,000 nationwide were commonplace. But now the number of new cases across the U.S. is typically around 100,000 to 200,000 per day, accompanied by between 1,000 and 2,000 deaths.
This situation is likely to worsen shortly, Fauci said, suggesting that rather than thinking of Thanksgiving and Christmas as separate events, we should view them as part of a thirty-day-plus period in which many of us will be in close proximity to others either because we're spending time with family or shopping at crowded stores — and these scenarios won't begin to taper off until after New Year's celebrations conclude. As a result, we're likely to experience what he characterized as a "surge upon a surge" that could well overwhelm health-care systems in Colorado and across the country if the public at large doesn't get serious about following best practices: the wearing of facial coverings around others, maintaining a physical distance of at least six feet, avoiding "indoor congregate settings," spending more time outdoors than indoors, and washing hands frequently.
Fauci tempered this downbeat assessment with good news about vaccines. Characterizing himself as a cautious optimist, he acknowledged that even he hadn't dared to hope that multiple vaccines would be developed with an efficacy of around 95 percent. He predicted that 40 million doses for 20 million people would be available later this month, with front-line health-care workers and both residents and workers at nursing homes likely to get the first doses; two injections for each individual will be required. He suggested that teachers, students and others deemed higher priority will likely have vaccines available to them during the first three months of 2021, with the general public getting a chance in mid- to late April. If that timeline holds, he suggested that COVID-19 would be defeated just as smallpox, polio and the measles have been, and school and other activities will be able to move forward next fall in a safe way.
At Polis's urging, Fauci also talked up the use of masks — even though they're only about 50 percent effective in preventing the spread of the disease. He likened face coverings to seat belts; some people are injured or killed despite buckling up, but the vast majority of people survive crashes because of the devices. "We don't want the expectation of the perfect to be the enemy of the good that masks can do," Fauci said.
After giving credit to President Donald Trump for his work in speeding up the vaccine approval process, Polis invited questions from journalists — and the first one attempted to maneuver him and Fauci into criticizing Mayor Michael Hancock for traveling over Thanksgiving after he'd told others not to. Fauci avoided specifically trashing Hancock, but he did say that "whenever mixed messaging comes out, it not only isn't helpful, but it can be detrimental." Polis, meanwhile, offered his hope that neither Hancock nor Congresswoman-elect Lauren Boebert, who took part in what she dubbed a "turkey funeral" along with thirty guests, get sick despite their risky behavior.
Reporters also tried to get Fauci to comment on the so-called five-star plan to allow certain restaurants to increase indoor dining capacity if they enact especially high safety protocols; given that he hadn't heard about that pilot project in Mesa County, he could only say that studying the subject seemed fine to him. But he was more definitive about the prospect of schools being allowed to offer in-person education. "Close the bars, open the schools," he said.
Regarding the hospital scenario in southwestern Colorado, where ICU bed availability is said to be at 0 percent right now, Polis stressed that the state would make sure everyone in the affected area is able to get appropriate care, but offered no specifics. And Fauci attempted to calm health-care workers who fear that by being among the first people to take one of the new vaccines, they will essentially be guinea pigs for a treatment that will be widely distributed more quickly than any other in the history of modern medicine. He outlined the conclusions of independent observers and said that when it comes time for him to take one of the shots, he'll do so without hesitation.
The doctor's final message for Coloradans: "Hang in there. We're all in this together. ... Help is on the way, and we're going to get out of this. We will get through this, and we will be back to the normal way we were before this particular plague hit us, and we'll be able to do the kind of things we enjoy in life with all our friends and colleagues."
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