Coronavirus

Polis Singing Same COVID Tune Despite Delta Variant Getting Worse

Colorado Governor Jared Polis during a May press conference, when he announced that unvaccinated people no longer had to wear masks at public places.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis during a May press conference, when he announced that unvaccinated people no longer had to wear masks at public places. colorado.gov
Just over an hour after Mayor Michael Hancock announced a new policy that will require both city employees and private workers in some high-risk professions, including teachers, to get immunized against COVID-19 or face possible firing, Governor Jared Polis held his own August 2 press conference about the disease. But rather than revealing new tactics intended to address the more transmissible Delta variant, which is infecting greater numbers of both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, he stuck to many of the same talking points he's used over the past year and a half while adding his own variation on the maxim "Keep Calm and Carry On."

His version? "Don't ignore all this, but don't panic."

At the outset of his talk, Polis used one of his favorite verbal tactics: a baseball metaphor. "Just when we think we're getting through this, the virus throws a new curveball at us," he said, before noting that there are currently 358 people in the state hospitalized for COVID-19, compared to around 270 at this time last week. However, he pointed out that Colorado's hospital capacity isn't at risk, and that the overall numbers are considerably better than those in states such as Florida. He also celebrated Colorado exceeding a 70 percent vaccination rate for all people eligible to get a shot — those residents ages twelve and above. That's an improvement from the 70 percent of adults the state achieved just prior to the July 4 holiday, but still not good enough, Polis says: He wants Colorado to get to 80 percent.

To help reach this goal, Polis decreed last week that the 30,000-plus folks employed by the state need to either get vaccinated by September 20 or submit to twice-weekly testing — a requirement that he hopes will incentivize the inoculation-hesitant to grit their teeth and submit to the shots. Still, he praised Denver's efforts, as well as those of private employers who are now requiring their workers to be vaccinated, even though he isn't yet willing to go nearly as far for the state.

Colorado's COVID situation remains problematic, as state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy made clear during her time at the podium. Cases have seen around a 30 percent week-over-week increase lately, with unvaccinated people accounting for most of them, she said. However, she also conceded that during the month of July, the percentage of so-called breakthrough cases — infections of the fully immunized — has grown from less than 5 percent to as much as 20 percent of the total, largely because the Delta variant has almost entirely supplanted the original strain.

Herlihy said that an 80 percent vaccine effectiveness rate is an excellent goal, especially since most immunized people who catch COVID-19 tend to experience less severe symptoms than the unvaccinated. Still, she acknowledged that cases among the vaccinated public will probably keep growing, given the prevalence of the virus in the state. She presented figures showing that the Moderna vaccine appears to offer more protection against the Delta variant than the medication produced by Pfizer and especially Johnson & Johnson, though she said that there's not yet enough information to know if other factors are at play.

For his part, Polis continued to portray vaccines as Colorado's route out of the pandemic and offered his usual rap about easy accessibility of the free treatments. But during a question-and-answer session, he said that he's started wearing a mask again when indoors around larger groups of people.

Not that a statewide mask mandate is coming anytime soon. According to Polis, such an order would only be reasonable if Colorado were in the midst of an emergency, and he doesn't think that's the case right now.

"Our North Star from the very start has been to avoid overwhelming our medical system so we can provide the best quality of care to Coloradans in need," he explains. "That is not at risk." While he admitted that "we expect [hospitalizations] to get worse, but we will continue to monitor that and will assure the people of Colorado that we will make sure everyone will have the best quality of hospital care."

His bottom line: "It's not the time to be alarmist, but it's also not the time to stick your head in the sand."
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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