At the outset, Polis pointed out that while hospitalizations associated with the novel coronavirus are down significantly (just over 900 at present, as opposed to a peak of 1,600 or so around a month ago), "the virus is extremely prevalent across Colorado, and across America," and if residents let down their guard, numbers could spike again before vaccine distribution can have a significant impact. Right now, Colorado has received approximately 243,000 doses of assorted vaccines (less than promised), with 129,000 people receiving at least one dose. However, that corresponds to only about 2 percent of those eligible, and even those who've gotten a shot won't be fully protected until they get a second shot three to four weeks hence, depending on the specific medication.
For these reasons, Polis stressed, citizens need to "double down" on safety protocols such as wearing masks in public, maintaining a six-foot distance from others, and avoiding social gatherings with individuals from other households to prevent a slide.
Creating the state's vaccine priorities — which start with phase 1A, involving health-care professionals working directly with COVID-19 patients, and both residents and staff of long-term-care facilities — has been complicated, because Colorado only has control over the health-care professionals category; the facilities vaccinations are being administered by the federal government, which has contracts with CVS and Walgreens to work with nursing homes and the like. That's why the state's part of 1A is expected to be largely concluded by January 15, while many of those living and working in nursing homes haven't been vaccinated yet.
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's executive director, said the state thinks the feds haven't done well enough holding up their end, and has offered support in attempt to move things along faster. But Polis admitted feeling frustrated that he can do little more to improve the process other than to cajole those in charge of it.
Under phase 1B of the program, Coloradans ages seventy and up will receive vaccines, while others included in this category, including teachers and educators, are now being told they'll have to wait until March to participate. This shift has been problematic; we know of at least one school that had to cancel previously scheduled staff vaccinations because of the state's shift. But Polis defended it by saying the approach follows recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but is even more ambitious: The CDC recommends prioritizing those 75 and up, but Polis moved that number down to seventy after discovering that 78 percent of fatalities here have occurred for those seventy and over.
Of course, many septuagenarians and even older residents have been baffled about how to get those promised vaccinations — and Polis's explanations may not have cleared things up much. He said big hospital systems such as UC Health, Denver Health and Centura have started reaching out to notify their patients about the process and schedule appointments. But the variety of sign-up options are dizzying, many smaller hospitals are not yet up to speed, and the state has yet to fully implement a one-stop website that will direct people across the state to the right places. All of these deficits should be corrected over the next week or so, Polis predicted.
Among additional issues cited by Ryan is the widely varying buy-in to the vaccine process among different ethnicities. She cited an October survey showing that only 53 percent of Black Coloradans and 56 percent of Hispanics in the state plan to get the vaccine, compared to 70 percent of white residents, for reasons she connected to historical inequities. She pledged that the state will do everything it can to overcome these barriers and increase the number of people of every description who are comfortable getting the shots.
In the meantime, Polis touted the return of in-person education and announced that Colorado is one of only three states in the country to take part in a program that will provide Binax rapid testing directly to schools — one million per month for the rest of the academic year. He provided few details, but suggested that schools and districts that opt in should have enough kits for educators to be tested at least once a week. The concept, which he likened to the sort of rapid testing that's only been available to professional sports teams such as the Denver Broncos and those working in the White House, is to reduce the need for quarantines, thereby allowing more uninterrupted learning. Polis also said masks will be provided to schools through the end of the 2020-2021 session — both K95 versions and more common surgical models that aren't as effective but are considerably more comfortable.
In a Q&A session, Ryan revealed that there are now two confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant known as B.1.1.7, which first popped up in Simla, and investigation is ongoing to see if others have been infected. Polis promised transparency about any fresh discoveries. He also defended moving all counties at Level Red on the state's dial to Level Orange, even though the overwhelming majority of them still have case incidence rates well above the standard that should qualify them for such a change. The state's "north star" has been hospital capacity, he explained, which seems to be holding steady right now — but he didn't dismiss the prospect of tightening restrictions if the data starts heading in the wrong direction again.
Plenty of uncertainties about the path ahead remain — but Polis clearly prefers chaos to complacency. "We want to convey that this is a crisis," he concluded. "Extreme times call for extreme measures, and the benefits of going as quickly as possible far outweigh any benefit of delaying until everything is lined up."