Colorado Is Rapidly Increasing Its Coronavirus Testing Capacity And Supplies Are On The Way, Polis Says

April 29, 2020

Gov. Jared Polis is optimistic about Colorado’s plan to address the coronavirus pandemic, he said Wednesday. If the state succeeds at hitting 55 percent social distancing, the governor said, its peak need for ICU beds has already passed.

The governor reiterated the state’s focus on testing, tracing and containment during a press conference at the state Capitol building. 

He said the state plans to run between 5,000 and 10,000 tests daily during the month of May. In March, the state could only run 160 tests a day. Colorado has the capacity to do over 10,000 tests a day but can’t because of supply constraints.

“All symptomatic community members who want it is the goal when you’re at that 5,000 to 10,000-a-day range,” Polis said.

“The role of testing is critical in identifying those outbreaks quickly,” Polis said. 

But the testing numbers laid out by the governor appear to fall well short of some estimates that suggest more than double that figure would be much more adequate and sufficient to help contain fresh outbreaks.

Glen Mays, an emergency preparedness expert at the Colorado School of Public Health, said "it is definitely good" the state will prioritize testing for asymptomatic cases among healthcare and frontline workers.

Ideally a state would want to immediately test "identified close contacts of confirmed or presumed cases," he said.  If that's not possible, that's "a significant limitation of Colorado’s test-and-trace plan. Asymptomatic transmission will continue to be the major threat for Colorado, and we will not interrupt it without testing the contacts of cases."

Polis said the state wants to prevent outbreaks by testing people who are asymptomatic. The state plans to increase testing supplies, test availability statewide and increase its epidemiological capacity.

“The test is complicated, supplies are limited not just in Colorado,” Polis said. “That’s why this has been such a challenge for Colorado and America to get where we need to be in testing.”

Colorado currently has 15,000 swab tests, 20,000 extraction reagents and 100,000 detection reagents. By May 31, the state expects to have 195,000 each of swab tests, extraction reagents and detection reagents, Polis said.

In addition to testing at hospitals and healthcare facilities, Polis said the state lab has approved 34 requests for local community-based testing sites across the state, out of applications from more than 50 counties.

The governor said the state is working not only to test more people but also to “make those tests more meaningful.”

In the last two weeks, the state has doubled its epidemiology and contact tracing team from 31 people to 56 and is adding to its tracing toolkit.

“It’s not just the high-touch, traditional way of doing it,” Polis said.

The state has developed an online tool where Coloradans can report their symptoms, with the goal of more quickly identifying potential outbreaks.

Additionally, the governor said the state is focused on “targeted testing for outbreaks and at-risk population. This is generally the testing of asymptomatic folks.”

“It’ll be prioritized for people who are going to work with people in their 70s and 80s,” Polis said, citing nursing homes as an example.

Wednesday’s press event comes as the state pivots from its stay-at-home order to something Polis has described as “safer at home.” The new order eases statewide restrictions and some retail businesses begin reopening, with new social distancing measures in place and individual counties in control of any tighter restrictions they deem necessary.

Dr. Jandel Allen-Davis, president and CEO of Craig Hospital said the risks of the new phase of life in Colorado are real.

"Absent robust testing at the outset of Safer at Home, we need to be concerned about the extent of any uptick in cases with relaxation of restrictions of our communities’ movement." 

She said the best approach now is "strict enforcement and encouragement of the mitigation strategies that have enabled our hospital systems’ ability to respond to the pandemic up to this point." 

She said "broad, robust and ready access" of targeted testing of those most at-risk, like healthcare workers, communities of color and seniors, is key.

Polis also said he will be renewing and strengthening his soon-to-expire his executive order halting evictions for lack of payment into May.

"There will be no evictions for lack of payment in May just as there have not been in April," he said.

Testing has bedeviled the U.S. response to the coronavirus.

That effort has been marked by national supply shortages of test kits, reagents, transport medium and the protective gear needed by those who administer the tests. Many other countries, like China, South Korea, Taiwan, Iceland, New Zealand and Germany have been able to test their residents at a much higher per person rate than the U.S. and that’s allowed them to combat the virus while limiting the economic impact.

Since the state recorded its first case in early March, Colorado has increased its testing capacity significantly. But it still doesn’t have sufficient tests and public health infrastructure to halt a resurgence to allow Colorado’s economy to fully reopen. And one recent analysis showed Colorado lags behind nearby states like New Mexico and Utah.

The governor’s strategy to date has gradually dialed back Colorado’s levels of social distancing. Scientists working with the state think it could work while allowing an increase in economic activity, but it also comes with risk. If the public doesn’t embrace the new, more complicated guidelines, the state might still see a second wave of cases, which could swamp the state’s health care system.

But the state too has suffered from supply chain challenges that have made it difficult to get things like swabs and reagents. Colorado’s labs report dealing with bidding wars for scarce products.

“It was really like the Wild West out there,” said Scott Bookman, incident commander for the state’s public health department, told CPR. In some cases, labs here said they were outbid by other states, as well as federal agencies like FEMA.

Supplies are now in “unprecedented” demand globally, he said.