Updated 5:47 p.m.
Gov. Jared Polis said the National Guard would begin conducting COVID-19 tests in Colorado's three largest nursing homes as part of a renewed focus on facilities serving the state's "most vulnerable."
Polis also said that he was requiring every nursing home in the state to file a plan for isolating residents who show symptoms of the coronavirus and added that critical businesses, including grocery stores, would now have to require employees to wear masks to protect them and customers.
At least 163 residents of nursing homes and senior care facilities had died of complications from COVID-19 as of Wednesday when the state released its first accounting for the impact of the virus on that population. That has been tracking at about 50 percent of the total deaths in the state.
Polis said state inspections had found that many homes were complying with earlier orders forbidding visitation in homes and requiring screening of workers and vendors before entering. But some, he said, were "short-circuiting" requirements, leading to Friday's new orders.
“We find that compliance is good in some places, spotty in others,” Polis said.
The virus is deadly across all age brackets, “But the fatality rate, and the hospitalization rate, are much higher for people in their 70s and 80s who are otherwise perfectly healthy,” the governor noted.
Going forward, long-term care facilities, by public health order, will be required to develop detailed isolation plans and submit them to the state department of health by May 1. The intent is to make sure that these facilities have a plan in place in case a resident or staff member shows symptoms.
“We really need even better planning, better protections to stop the spread of the virus in these facilities, particularly as the stay-at-home and these severe restrictions in place roll-off,” Polis said.
Part of the plan includes protocols for proper screening of anyone entering a facility, similar to the screen used at Colorado’s state emergency operations center.
Up until this point, the governor has only strongly suggested that Coloradans wear a face covering when they leave their home on essential tasks. The idea has been that social pressure and a sense of community would carry the day. As part of the move to better protect seniors, there will be a new executive order that makes masks a requirement for critical businesses.
“While many people are wearing masks at the senior care facilities, at grocery stores and other critical jobs,” he noted, “there still are some that are not.”
It can be either a medical mask or a non-medical cloth mask — even one made at home. There is an exception for breathing interference.
Polis fell back on now-familiar arguments as he prevailed on Coloradans to adhere to social distancing, the stay-at-home order and face masks. He knows that residents are starting to get antsy as the pandemic drags on.
“We don't want to prolong the pain for everybody else just because some aren't [wearing masks],” he said. “And the more people wear masks at these critical workplaces and when going about their necessary errands, the more lives will be saved. And it could be your life. And the sooner we can get the economy growing again.”