Polis Confirms First Virus Variant..and Lowers Vaccine Priority to Age Seventy

Jared Polis's December 30 press conference focused on the virus variant.
Jared Polis's December 30 press conference focused on the virus variant. Governor Jared Polis Facebook
Governor Jared Polis just confirmed another first for Colorado: The first case in the country of the virus variant known as B117, with a second, possible case.

At a press conference on December 30, Polis credited this discovery to "world-class work" by the state lab, headed by Dr. Emily Travanty, who was on hand to discuss the genetic variation key to identifying the variant.

"This is unlikely to be the first person with the variant in the United States," Polis said, noting that the first positive case is a Colorado National Guard member who had not been out of the country and was working in Elbert County in rural Colorado. "But I'm proud that we detected it here as quickly as we did." 

The second probable case is another Colorado National Guard member; both had been helping at a nursing home in Simla, where 26 of the residents have tested positive, most of them before the Guard was deployed there late this month.

After the variant was identified, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials visited the nursing home yesterday to collect more specimens. "So far, we do not have evidence that the variant virus is circulating in that facility," said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state's chief epidemiologist.

But there are other concerns. "The new variant can be transmitted more quickly and more highly, 50 to 70 percent," said Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer at the CDPHE. "It doesn't seem to be more deadly." But even so, he noted, "if it's spreading faster and more people have it, this could be overwhelming for our health-care systems."

The discovery of the variant was the headline grabber, but Polis had more news: The first phase of vaccinations is almost finished, and the state will go to 1B as early as today. In addition to firstresponders and other front-line workers already included in that category, the state has expanded the list to add people age seventy and up. This is a variation on the Centers for Disease Control's recommendation that those 75 and up be given priority, but Polis explained that state health officials had analyzed the data and determined that 78 percent of Colorado's deaths from COVID were in the age group seventy and up.
Polis said the state is estimating that phase 1B will be concluded in four to five weeks. After that, Colorado will move into Phase 2, including those with pre-existing conditions and Coloradans age 60 to 69. The timeline is "all dependent on the steady supply of vaccines," he added.

So far, about 84,000 vaccinations have been administered in the state, Polis said. As of today, 3,901 people have died in Colorado because of COVID-19 (including four in that Simla nursing home); just over 1,000 people are currently hospitalized. But the number of people who've been tested has dropped, the governor noted, urging those who have symptoms to get tested. Turnaround time for results has dropped considerably, down to 60 to 75 percent within a day.

From the start, Polis explained, "my goal has been to stabilize the health crisis." And the virus variant won't change the tactics he's endorsing: washing your hands, avoiding gatherings, social distancing, and wearing a mask.

With the mask, Polis said, "we have an easy, 50 to 75 percent effective vaccine today," Polis said.

The governor ended the press conference with a special thank you to Colorado National Guard members who "are on the front lines every day," including in Simla.

He also reminded residents to be careful over New Year's, and to stay safe. "We're rounding third base," said the baseball fan. "Let's finish the game."
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun