DENVER – Colorado will establish a new task force to repurpose Colorado businesses to help in the fight against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) by manufacturing needed medical equipment and better tracking the virus in the wake of what Gov. Jared Polis said was a sluggish reaction by the federal government, and will have employers cut the number of in-person workers at businesses spaces to 50% or less of the workforce by Tuesday.
Polis hosted a news conference Sunday afternoon to announce the new restrictions and the creation of the new task force, but spoke as boldly as he has thus far about the need for Coloradans to step up their social distancing and personal isolation and about the Trump administration’s slow actions thus far in responding to the rapidly-spreading virus.
His news conference came about an hour after the number of cases in Colorado jumped by 116 from Saturday to Sunday – to 591 cases in 29 counties, with 58 people hospitalized and 6 dead, though the data is at least a day behind. Polis said again he believes there are actually “thousands” of cases in the state if they could all be tested.
And the news conference was delayed two hours after the White House coronavirus task force’s news conference was pushed back more than an hour and a half and after the president spoke about what he feels has been a quick federal response.
"We are there to back you up and will always be," the president tweeted at governors after criticizing the governor of Illinois and "a very small group of certain other Governors."
“In many ways, I couldn’t have imagined that our nation’s response could have been so slow,” Polis said. “Like many governors of both parties across the country, I’m furious that as the leader of the free world, we’re being forced to close down businesses and restaurants and bars because the United States – unlike [South] Korea and Taiwan – didn’t have enough tests, enough personal protective equipment, or ventilators, to properly manage care for those who would get this virus.”
On the same day that lawmakers, the Denver Broncos and several organizations hosted a collection drive for PPE at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium, Polis said that state health officials had told him that when the virus reaches its peak in Colorado – which still could be weeks away depending on the measures Coloradans take – that the state medical providers would be about 7,000 ventilators short of what is needed to treat everyone needing them either for COVID-19 or other ailments.
And he added that though the federal government sent Colorado 49,000 N95-rated masks for first responders and medical workers last week, Colorado typically uses 70,000 per day.
He said that Colorado was getting “very little assistance” from the federal administration at this point and that the state and new innovation task force were working on shoring up domestic and state production of necessary medical supplies and working on emergency importation orders to keep supply chains from China intact. The Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council's pandemic response team in 2018.
“At this point, while anything the federal government can provide us is helpful, we know we can’t count on that to help meet the need,” Polis said.
Polis said he had been talking to Colorado’s congressional delegation “almost daily” and had been in direct contact with Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet about the “Phase 3” Senate coronavirus response package still being hashed out Sunday evening. He applauded Colorado’s members of Congress for working with him, along with state mayors, county commissioners and health department leaders.
Senate Democrats on Sunday balked at what the Senate GOP has presented thus far, saying it was too much of a handout for large corporations and wasn’t doing enough for workers directly affected by the virus and various fallout in different states.
Polis said he hoped a bill would include a Medicaid match up to 12%, cash payments directly to Americans and other priorities shared by the National Governors Association and Colorado delegation. And he said that he would ask for more special funding for the National Guard to continue to respond in Colorado.
“We hope and we trust that the federal government will step up on the economic and health care side to provide states like ours the resources we need to get through this,” Polis said.
Polis announces task force to tackle manufacturing, data needs
In order to meet Colorado’s needs, Polis said, he announced a new task force of business and technology sector leaders that he says will be focusing on how to repurpose businesses in Colorado to make things medical workers need to deal with the response, and who will also implement more data tracking to better understand the spread of the virus once more testing is finally available.
He compared the response necessary to what the U.S. did during the world wars – when businesses repurposed themselves to provide equipment necessary for war. The different this time is that more masks, ventilators, gowns and testing capabilities will need to be manufactured.
Among the Colorado businesses who have already starting doing so, Polis said, were a lab making hand sanitizer that will start going out this week, a plastics facility in Greeley making 3D-printed plastic face shield mechanisms that will be working with other 3D printers in Colorado, and a medical testing company working on a test kit that can diagnose COVID-19 in 45 minutes.
“This is the sort of patriotic response that we need across the public and private sector for Colorado to mount a response to this virus that saves lives,” Polis said. “This is Colorado in our toughest days, but it is also Colorado at its best: Rising to the occasion to offer what we can do to save the lives of our fellow citizens.”
Polis said that any new equipment under development would be tested to make sure it meets the standards for Coloradans and their health. And he asked anyone or any business wishing to participate in trying to develop new resources to help fight COVID-19 in Colorado to go to HelpColoradoNow.org to sign up.
“We are working with speed; we are working with urgency because we know that we are dealing with human lives. We need to do it fast and we need to do it right,” the governor said.
Polis: “Grim Reaper” is greatest enforcer for those who don’t obey social, work restrictions
But no matter if and when that necessary medical equipment can be ready to go in Colorado, or received in necessary quantities from the federal government, Polis said that it was time for Coloradans to take their response to the virus more seriously.
He announced that effective Tuesday, he was issuing an executive order for “non-critical” workplaces to reduce their in-person workforces to below 50% in the building at one time. He urged telecommuting for as many employees as possible in those industries to work from home. When not possible, Polis said, employers should stagger schedules so people can reduce their proximity from one another.
Health care workers, those in critical infrastructure and manufacturing industries, some retail, news media, financial institutions, construction workers, agricultural workers and defense and public safety workers would be among those who wouldn’t be affected by the order but who are still encouraged to use social distancing when working or to work from home if possible.
Polis said that starting Monday more than half of the approximately 30,000 Colorado state employees will be working remotely aside from essential employees, like prison guards and those working at youth detention facilities.
And he implored Coloradans to respect the pleas from him and state health official s for people to stay home as much as possible so as to not endanger themselves or, particularly, those most at-risk of developing the worst cases of COVID-19.
He asked people to only go for groceries once a week; to jog fewer times during the week; not to have large gatherings with friends; and to go out in public less often to limit their own exposure and their exposure to others. And he urged people to help those most at-risk by asking what they can do for them so as to encourage them to stay home.
And he was clear that it wasn’t law enforcement that people would have to worry about by disobeying the guidance and orders from the state – it is death itself.
“There is no enforcement authority here. There is a far greater enforcement authority in these matters, and his name is the Grim Reaper,” Polis said. "If we don’t abide by these common-sense protocols, you will be jeopardizing lives. It could be your friends; those you love most. It could be your own self.”
“But that is the ultimate enforcement of ensuring that we are all doing our individual best to make sure that we have that physical distancing with others to immediately contain the contagion of this virus,” he added.
State health officials continue to demand anyone who believes they might have symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home and isolate themselves no matter what. If their medical condition worsens, people are asked to call a medical provider or 911 depending on the severity. No one is asked to leave isolation if they have had symptoms unless they have been symptom-free and fever-free for at least 72 hours.
Polis said that would be critical for Colorado and its people in the weeks and months ahead in order to “flatten the curve” of the virus’ spread in Colorado and allow state medical providers to get the protective and testing equipment they need and for more widespread testing to become available.
But he said the state was committed to doing everything it can to ensuring the state economy is not disrupted in the manner it currently is for months on end and to getting its people and economy back on their feet as quickly as is feasible.
“This is not an ideal response. In the short-term, Coloradans need to heed this advice and take this situation as gravely and seriously as health care leaders are,” Polis said. “But my team is moving as fast as we can to build a Colorado paradigm to ensure that we can look more like South Korea or Taiwan’s successful containment strategy and less like the deadly and devastating public health disaster that’s crippling Italy right now.”
But he said people needed to get used to isolating as much as possible in the weeks and months ahead in order to truly contain the spread of the virus and to minimize the long-term effects and risks in Colorado – for workers and the economy, but also for the health care system.
“I think that people need to know the right thing to do. They need to look at the facts and data and they need to do it. And they need to understand that the consequences are far beyond any that can be doled out by any law enforcement agency in this state,” Polis said. “The consequences are very much life and death for your friends, your loved ones, and perhaps, even yourself.”