Colorado Family Physicians Beg Gov. Polis For A ‘Shelter In Place’ Order

Coronavirus Colfax and Hwy 40 From Bennet top the Buffalo Herd Overlook
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A non-existent morning rush hour on Colfax, viewed from Federal Boulevard. The morning after Gov. Jared Polis advised people to stay home, Colfax Avenue from Bennet on up into the mountains where it becomes Hwy 40, was a ghost of its normal self — although some facets of life carried on as usual, Monday, March 23, 2020.

Gov. Jared Polis has so far declined to issue a statewide order for Coloradoans to stay at home or shelter in place, unlike leaders in California and Illinois.

Some doctors now want him to change his tune. 

The Colorado Academy of Family Physicians, which represents over 2,600 Colorado doctors and medical students, sent a letter to Polis on Monday asking him to reconsider his resistance to such an order. The medical association fears cases of COVID-19 could quickly overwhelm the state’s healthcare system without more dramatic action. 

“We are particularly concerned that those without symptoms can transmit and spread the virus without realizing it – which can severely affect our capacity to safeguard the health of our communities,” their letter reads. “We request the Governor order all persons in the State of Colorado to stay home or at their place of residence except as needed to maintain continuity of state operations deemed critical by the Governor’s office.”

San Miguel County became the first Colorado county to issue a shelter in place order last week. Denver followed on Monday with its own directive, telling residents to only leave their home for groceries, medical supplies and medication. The San Juan Basin's public health department, which serves Archuleta and La Plata counties, has ordered a stay-at-home advisory.

Polis has taken steps to limit the pandemic, including ordering schools, gyms, theaters, ski resorts, barbershops, nail salons and tattoo parlors to close. Restaurants may only now offer delivery or takeout. The state now also bars any gatherings over 10 people in line with guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

During a Sunday press conference, Polis announced another order directing all non-critical businesses to reduce their in-person workforce by 50 percent or more. It adds all businesses should accommodate telework to the greatest extent possible.

As for a “shelter in place” order, Polis has said he worries about the economic consequences. Instead of telling all Coloradans to stay home, he said people should follow existing public health guidelines to avoid crowds, work from home and remain at a safe distance from others. 

“What will inspire people to do this — what will lead people to do this — is not a fear of a policeman taking you to jail,” he said at the Sunday press conference. “It is fear of the Grim Reaper.”

Polis added states with shelter-in-place orders aren’t threatening people with arrest. Even if he took such a step, he said it would still ultimately be up to Colordoans to protect themselves from the disease.

But Dr. John Cawley, the president of the CAFP who practices family medicine in Fort Collins, said a stay-at-home order could give Coloradans the clearest possible signal to avoid all unnecessary social contact. 

“Only ordering 50 percent of people to work from home means more COVID-19 spreading throughout our community, whereas a strong mandate to shelter in place will save lives and further reduce the burden of the disease on a fragile healthcare system,” he said. 

Public health experts are split on whether Colorado needs to order its citizens to stay home. 

May Chu, a clinical professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, said a shelter in place order might make sense in denser parts of the state, like Denver and Boulder, but likely isn’t necessary for suburban or rural communities. 

“In general, across Colorado, we don’t have a huge issue with density,” she said. “So I don’t think there's a reason for a statewide shelter-in-place order right now. 

Dr. Ken Lyn-Kew, a pulmonary and critical care physician at National Jewish Health, said the governor should pay attention to whether Coloradans are following his existing recommendations. Over the last weekend, he said he saw far too many people in tight groups in parks and other public spaces around Denver. 

If such violations continue, he thinks Polis should consider telling all Coloradans to stay home — with narrow exceptions for grocery runs or doctor visits.

"The governor is trying to allow Colordoans to do the right thing," he said. "If they continue to not, I'd support him issuing a statewide shelter in place order."