Colorado Ramps Up Coronavirus Response As Reported Cases Double In One Day, High Country Becomes ‘Hot Spot’

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis provides updates on the state’s coronavirus response efforts on Wednesday, March 11.

Gov. Jared Polis spoke to reporters on Wednesday about the state’s continuing efforts to contain the novel coronavirus.

The press conference follows the governor declaring a state of emergency on Tuesday which opened the door for more dramatic government actions. That included a new emergency rule that requires service and hospitality businesses to offer four days of paid leave for workers being tested for COVID-19, the disease.

The state also is opening testing facilities, including a drive-up center in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood and a planned new site in the mountains.

"As you know, our team has been preparing for this situation for months," Polis said. "This will get worse before it gets better."

Polis announced Wednesday the state would enact emergency rules limiting visitation to nursing facilities as well as directing CDHS to direct emergency policies for senior centers, veterans centers and the state hospital.

Polis also said the state would recommend school closures for 72 hours in cases where a positive case has been identified in a school.

"What is required is individual responsibility and action (in hygiene practices and social distancing)," Polis said.

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Colorado's total presumptive positive cases of coronavirus rose by 16 people on Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to 33. There is one indeterminate test the state is treating as positive. One reported case was a Denver International Airport maintenance worker. Nine of those alone were in Pitkin County, and Polis called that area a "hot spot."

"We can confirm community spread in the high country," Polis said. "A single person can spread this virus to tens, dozens of individuals."

He also said that community spread is suspected in the Denver metro area, and that other states saw "stealth" spread before larger numbers of cases were reported.

"(Public health officials advised me that) we are likely on the verge of a tipping point where we will likely see more community spread in the days and weeks ahead," he said.

Resort and mountain communities will be hit hardest first, Polis said. They have "limited surge capacity." The governor advises that people over 60 or those with chronic health conditions avoid unnecessary travel to high country outbreak areas and/or attending large public events.

"My administration is focused on protecting the most vulnerable populations and the broader public," he said.

Read more: What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Polis did emphasize again that 80 percent of people who contract coronavirus will experience only minor symptoms and will not require hospitalization.

The governor said he understands the frustration and fear, but that it was time to support one another and follow best practices.

"But we need you to be part of working with us … to respond to this virus and to reduce the trajectory of its spread," Polis said. "This is really a test of our Colorado character."

Polis said he is still considering restrictions on public events.

"In the next two days, I'll be having conversations with the faith community as well as those who operate venues in Colorado," he said, adding that he'll also talk to the sports community.

"We want them to establish protocols where they can have safe spacing at events," Polis added, defining adequate space a 6-8 feet between groups of people.

If there's an immediate threat, "we won't hesitate to shut down public events," he said.

Universities across Colorado made the move en masse Wednesday to transition to online classes. Three University of Colorado campuses, Metropolitan University of Denver, Colorado College, University of Northern Colorado and Johnson & Wales University all plan to suspend in-person classes by the end of March, and many anticipate staying remote through the end of the spring semester.

More conferences and public gatherings continue to cancel or postpone events in the Denver area.

Polis has faced questions from Republican lawmakers because he announced the emergency verbally, rather than with a formal written order.