Is the COVID dial dead?

Colorado’s governor too easily ignores carefully calibrated metrics

Gov. Jared Polis gestures a sign of approval before he signs for delivery for the state’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, early Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in east Denver. The state received 975 frozen vials of the vaccine, which will be distributed immediately. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, pool)

When Colorado public health officials introduced a “dial” system to determine what level of COVID restrictions should apply in individual counties, it was all about data, local conditions and, most importantly, beating the pandemic.

Not anymore.

Now it’s about restriction avoidance, statewide perspective and walking “a difficult line between the public health crisis and the economic crisis,” as Gov. Jared Polis said Dec. 30, when he announced, out of nowhere, that more than half of the state’s counties, which were under the “red” level on the dial, would be moved to the less-restrictive “orange” level for reasons that can best be summarized by saying the governor just wanted it that way.

Where does that leave Coloradans? Confused, skeptical and, possibly, more vulnerable to illness.

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Colorado launched the dial in September. It was meant to apply county-by-county. It consisted of five levels, with red — at the time the most restrictive — equating to stay-at-home conditions. A county’s color designation was determined by three metrics: number of new coronavirus cases, percent of COVID tests that come back positive and hospitalization trends.

In November, even as the state was experiencing its worst of three COVID-19 spikes, state officials revised the dial to add a purple level, now the most restrictive, and altered the red level to be less restrictive.

The move at the time seemed designed to relieve a raft of counties from being subjected to the restrictions that were clearly called for by the dial — a system informed by the best epidemiological advice the state can muster.

Then in late December Polis tweeted that he was moving 33 counties from the red to the orange level — not because the counties satisfied dial metrics but because Polis was feeling optimistic about statewide hospitalization trends.

As noted by The Colorado Sun, 41 counties as of New Year’s Eve were at red-level metrics. The red-level metric for new COVID cases is 350 per 100,000 people over two weeks. Pitkin had a two-week incidence rate of 1,751, Las Animas was at 1,386 and Philips was at 911, according to the Sun. They weren’t even in the ballpark.

Christy Ruffell, manager of clinic nursing standards at UCHealth Medical Center, left, administers the very first COVID-19 vaccine in Colorado to Kevin Londrigan, a respiratory therapist at UCHealth Medical Center, right, at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020, in Fort Collins. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, Pool)

Moreover, while any positive COVID statistic is cause for celebration, and state officials should be expected to recalibrate restrictions as the science warrants, the announcement came amid other developments that demanded caution — New Year’s Eve gatherings that could set the state back, many red-level counties beginning to allow restaurants to resume limited in-person dining despite warnings from public health officials of the risks, and a new strain of the coronavirus thought to be more transmissible being discovered in the state.

And Polis undermined a key component of the dial’s purpose. Its county-specific nature was always central to its applicability. “Colorado’s not monolithic,” Polis said back in September when introducing the dial. “Different counties and communities and even within counties, different cities have different experiences with the virus, and we want to arm those local decision makers with the tools they need in each area.”

Yet now, instead of the dial sparing safer counties harsh restrictions that are necessary elsewhere, counties with dangerous COVID conditions are spared restrictions if the state as a whole shows improvement. This decision was made not in the counties but at the Capitol.

Among the people most chagrined by the red-to-orange reversal were the very people whose job it is to keep us safe. “It appears that if there’s enough pressure from the business and economic forces in the state that we will change the dial to meet those demands and that’s kind of frustrating,” Mark Johnson, executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, said according to The Denver Post.

One of the primary failings of America’s response to the pandemic has been an absence of a clear and unified message from federal leaders, who too often have lacked the courage to follow the science and make hard decisions for the sake of public safety. Early in the pandemic, Polis established himself as a model of crisis leadership, a governor who based his decisions on data and the counsel of public health experts.

But the strains of this role have tested him and now he appears to be faltering. He has twisted the dial out of whack, and in some ways it’s dead. What good are those metrics when they’re bypassed at will? What trust remains in the dial’s usefulness when it’s so unpredictably used?

Polis is trying to optimize his standing among the competing interests of public health, economic wellbeing and political advantage. But what Polis forgets is that the economic crisis is the result of the public health crisis. There’s no walking a line between the two. Solve the public health crisis and you solve the economic crisis. You don’t need a dial to point to that conclusion.

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