Resisting calls for new COVID-19 restrictions, Gov. Polis orders hospitals to prepare for surge

Modeling projects health-care system could be overwhelmed in December

Gov. Jared Polis gives an update on the state's coronavirus response at a briefing on Nov. 13, 2020. (Governor Jared Polis Facebook)

As COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations continue to set records in Colorado and across the country, Gov. Jared Polis on Friday said he wants hospitals and health-care providers across the state to begin preparing for the worst.

“These are our darkest days as a nation,” Polis said as he opened a briefing on the state’s pandemic response. “These are our darkest days as a state.”

With modeling by public-health experts suggesting that the state’s health-care system could be overwhelmed as soon as December, Polis said he would issue an executive order requiring hospitals to take a series of steps to expand their surge capacity as caseloads rise — from opening up unused space to gradual limits or, eventually, a full moratorium on elective procedures. As a “last resort,” Polis said, the state’s alternative care sites in Denver, Westminster and Pueblo can be activated.

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The order will also require hospitals to submit a plan to the state evaluating their ICU bed capacity and outlining steps to expand it by up to 50% if needed.

“Our North Star continues to be making sure that we have those available beds,” Polis said. “We want to make sure every person who contracts COVID has a fighting chance of making it through.”

Polis also announced that the State Emergency Operations Center would return to Level I, the same status that had been activated amid coronavirus response efforts between March and May.

Colorado launches new ‘dial’ system to determine COVID-19 restrictions

But despite growing calls for additional restrictions on businesses and other activities, Polis announced no such measures on Friday. He did not answer directly when asked what, if anything, would lead him to order additional statewide shutdowns, or why counties whose case counts have exceeded metrics that trigger a stay-at-home order under the state’s “dial” system haven’t yet been directed to do so.

“I don’t think this is about stay-at-homes or lockdowns anymore,” Polis said. “The people of Colorado know how to keep themselves safe from this virus. We just need the resolve to do so.”

Polis’ briefing came more than a week after local health officials across Colorado sent a letter to his administration urging tougher restrictions, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Colorado Public Radio.

“We strongly encourage you to act according to the timelines and mechanisms identified within the … Dial Policy Framework,” read the letter, dated Nov. 5 and signed by members of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials and the Metro Denver Partnership for Health. “While we appreciate the latitude in additional timing that CDPHE has provided to counties whose metrics exceed their Level on the Dial, we are concerned that with the steep acceleration of cases and hospitalizations, these delays will reduce the value of the additional restrictions provided in the higher level, essentially rendering them ‘too little, too late.'”

Polis, however, continued on Friday to express confidence that voluntary behavioral changes will be enough to get the virus under control. Amid widespread fears that holiday travel and gatherings could worsen the current wave of infections over the next several weeks, he urged Coloradans to take precautions but downplayed the impact that additional government actions might have.

“Look, we have Thanksgiving coming up,” Polis said. “I don’t think there’s anything that a governor can say, or that a health authority can say, that is more compelling than your love for your mother or father, or grandparent, or aunt or uncle.”

“The more family members that make a decision to self-quarantine, the more likely it is that you’re not bringing a loaded pistol for grandma’s head,” he added. “That’s where we are.”