Colorado called the COVID dial’s bluff

An effective vaccine can’t come soon enough

Gov. Jared Polis gives an update on the extent of the coronavirus pandemic and the state's wildfires on Aug. 18, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

In September, Gov. Jared Polis announced the creation of a dial system that established thresholds by which counties could determine what level of restrictions they needed to impose to keep residents safe from the spread of COVID-19.

On one end of the five-level dial was “protect our neighbors,” the least restrictive designation. On the other was “stay at home,” the most restrictive. “Stay at home” restrictions resembled those that were temporarily enacted from March 26 through the end of April, which required Colorado residents to remain at home except for critical activities like buying food. It was an extraordinary measure, meant to be imposed only if the rate COVID-19 infections reached a dire pace. Most counties since May have been under some intermediate level of restrictions, such as limitations on business’ indoor capacity, and the threat of a return to stay-at-home restrictions was supposed to encourage residents to take simple and effective precautions, like avoiding large groups and mask-wearing.

State officials thought Coloradans would do their part, but Coloradans called their bluff. Counties throughout the state have blown right past the stay-at-home dial thresholds, and rates of infection and hospitalization have been rising for weeks even as pleas from Polis for compliance have grown desperate.

But it turns out counties that have crossed the stay-at-home threshold will avoid stay-at-home restrictions, not because they’re less vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 but because the state changed the rules.

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In September, state public health officials adopted the first version of the dial. At the time, the average daily new cases was under 500 and new hospital admissions were consistently under 30 a day. The prospect of a county returning to stay-at-home restrictions seemed relatively remote. 

Then came October. The month started with an average daily case count of 604. By month’s end it shot up to 2,077. Worsening infection rates rapidly pushed counties toward dial-defined stay-at-home status. One of the metrics that was supposed to trigger a move toward stay-at-home restrictions was a two-week incidence rate of more that 350 new cases per 100,000 people. By the middle of this month the statewide, two-week incidence rate was 772 and rising.

The state far exceeded its previous COVID hospitalization peak, set in early April. Polis stated during a coronavirus briefing Tuesday that 1,378 people were in Colorado hospitals with confirmed COVID-19 compared to the spring peak of only 848.

But instead of doing what the dial said, state officials changed the dial. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment altered the definition of the red level from “stay at home” to “mostly stay at home.” It also added a new, purple level, which serves as the “we really, really mean it, stay home” level. Fifteen counties moved into the red level this week. Five more will on Sunday. But none moved into purple.

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For weeks Polis has withstood intensifying calls for him to order a shutdown as a means to get the spread of the virus under control. In early November, as reported by CPR, eight public health directors, including those from Denver and other populous counties in the metro area, sent a letter to the governor urging him to “act according to the timelines and mechanisms” in the dial framework. Failure to do so could mean “a greater likelihood of moving to the Stay at Home level that we all want to avoid and/or a greater length of time required in Stay at Home to reverse the dramatic rates of growth” of COVID infections, the public health directors warned. Yet Polis repeatedly declined to return to stay-at-home conditions in favor of futile appeals to personal responsibility, most notoriously last week when, imploring residents to be safe during Thanksgiving, he uttered this memorable metaphor: “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.”

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

He has offered several reasons why a stay-at-home order made sense in the spring but doesn’t now. The state has more personal protective equipment at hand. It has more surge capacity to care for patients. Health care providers know better now how to treat the disease. And at the start of the pandemic, federal lawmakers passed legislation that provided aid to American families and businesses struggling through economic crises, whereas in recent months Republicans in Congress rejected repeated attempts to provide further aid.

That last part is the key to understanding the country’s suffering. Congressional inaction puts governors like Polis in a no-win position — avoid the mass layoffs and failed businesses that come with lockdowns only to watch as the disease kills ever more residents.

But it would be shortsighted to focus blame only on congressional Republicans. Many elected leaders in Colorado have so downplayed the imperative of mask-wearing and social distancing that they are culpable in the out-of-control virus conditions now ripping through the state. U.S. Rep. Ken Buck is a top Colorado mask-denier. So is state House Minority Leader Patrick Neville. On Friday, the Weld County Board of Commissioners released a statement in which they outright refused to abide by state public health rules. “The county will not enforce a rule confining individuals to their homes for an indeterminate length of time … the county will not enforce any rule that forces a business to shut down or impedes their ability to operate.” Instead the commissioners, in a mostly rural county that has already seen 178 COVID deaths, encourage individuals to protect themselves “as best as possible.”

Even if state officials were to follow the dial restrictions as originally designed, the benefit would be blunted absent a science-based, nonpartisan public health response from local and national leaders. Residents called the state’s bluff. But so did the Weld commissioners. So did Buck. So did Senate Republicans. So did every official in a position of public service who has minimized the coronavirus or rejected the value of mask-wearing in the name of “freedom.”

An effective vaccine can’t come soon enough.