Gov. Polis On Air Quality, Vaccinations And Masking In Schools

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21min 45sec
Governor Jared Polis
David Zalubowski/AP
Gov. Jared Polis makes a point during an update on the state’s efforts to vaccinate residents against the coronavirus during a news conference Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Denver.

When Colorado Matters asked Twitter users to submit questions for Gov. Jared Polis, many of them asked about Colorado’s air quality and specifically ozone.

From May to late August of this year, the Front Range had 59 ozone action alerts. That’s more alerts than at any time since Colorado first began keeping records more than a decade ago. With levels continuing to rise, the EPA, which currently classifies the region’s ozone status as “serious” could downgrade that to “severe” and impose new regulations. 

But the governor said that the West Coast wildfires were a bigger problem this summer than ozone. “I'm talking about the air quality that I heard about from constituents across the state,” he said. The air quality issues were “almost entirely [from] the Dixie Fires. Not Colorado, not our cars, ground ozone is different. That's not the air quality issue that I hear about from constituents every day.”

In our regular interview, more from Gov. Polis on air quality and on another item that tops his agenda: COVID-19 vaccines. With boosters on the way, and the prospect of shots for kids ages 5 to 11, the governor wants family doctors to take on a bigger role.

Colorado Matters’ host Ryan Warner spoke with Gov. Polis over video chat. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Ryan Warner: You had some very strong words, recently, about the need for COVID-19 booster shots. You were critical of an FDA Advisory Committee decision last week to recommend boosters only for people age 65 and up, or people younger than that with underlying medical conditions. That has since been expanded to include boosters for frontline workers, so people in healthcare, teachers, grocery store employees. Does that shift go far enough? 

Gov. Jared Polis: I'm actually very happy with what [CDC Director Rachel] Walensky did. This is specifically the booster for those who had the Pfizer shot six months or more ago. And in our state, everybody who falls in that category, essentially everybody who got the Pfizer shot six months ago or more, is now eligible for a booster. 

It's because the only people getting it six months ago were either 65 and up or frontline workers. I wanted to make sure that everybody would be eligible for the booster after six months. The data shows that there is waning protection, particularly with Pfizer vaccinations, after a period of about five or six months. It also shows a terrific immune response, in terms of antibodies, from the booster. And then real-life data from Israel that shows significantly decreased disease incidence from the Pfizer booster.

For those who got Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, a booster is available only if you attest to having a weakened immune system, which you can do very simply on the checkoff form. We also expect that the Moderna booster data, along with the J&J booster data, will be formally submitted to FDA and CDC shortly.

Warner: You did say of those FDA scientists who questioned boosters, that they would have blood on their hands. Is saying something like that following the science? 

Gov. Polis: Yes, they're gone, thankfully. Those two resigned in disgrace.

Warner: I'm not sure they resigned in disgrace. They resigned over a disagreement with the Biden Administration that instead of providing boosters for Americans, the U.S. could provide other countries with vaccines.

Gov. Polis: And that's not their job. That's why it was a disgrace. It's a legitimate policy discussion to say, ‘Oh, how many should we try to give to other people in the world?’ and I'm all for that and Biden's getting 500 million doses for others. But the science on the benefit to Americans is clear that the booster [helps immunity]. So they're out of their lane at the FDA in trying to look at global health. 

Warner: Private doctors can administer the vaccine in their offices. Do you think enough of them are doing so? 

Gov. Polis: No and more need to because what we find — we're at about 76 percent of eligible Coloradans who have gotten at least their first vaccine. For that 24 percent that just hasn't yet, there's probably 10 or 15 [percent] that just aren't going to get it. So, that means you still have around 10 or 15 percent that are on the fence; persuadable, delaying it, and the most important discussion that they can have is not with the FDA, not with me, not even with their employer, it's with their personal, trusted doctor. 

And that's why we have aggressively worked to partner with primary care providers, family doctors, even giving them grants, $60 -  $100,000 to help make sure that they have the ability to go out and do the outreach to their patients, incorporate this into their wellness checks and offer the vaccine, with that intimate relationship that the trusted family physician has with families and individuals who may not have been vaccinated yet.

We're talking about a game of inches, not yards here, right? We're at 76 percent. We'd love to get to 85 or 90. We know we're not going to be 95 or 98. So every new person counts. Every discussion between a doctor and a patient matters. And we're talking about a percent here or a percent there.

Warner: New state data clearly show that wearing a mask lowers the risk of kids getting and potentially spreading the virus. You've said you want to leave that to local control, but now that the state data are in, why not move forward with a statewide rule that says, the science points to the effectiveness of masks? Many kids are unvaccinated. They should have masks, period. There are parents longing for something like that. What do you tell them? 

Gov. Polis: Well, masks work. They reduce transmission. Kids should use them, whether they're required in your district or not. It turns out about 80 percent of our schools do require masks in our state of Colorado. And it also turns out that the incidence of spread in schools that don't require masks is about a third to 50 percent higher. So that's an important data point, too. It's not exponentially higher. It's not 10 times higher. It's a third to 50 percent higher. And so that is a valid data point in discussions about how districts and what policy districts can use to encourage mask-wearing.

Warner: It’s not a data point that moves you on policy, though, to be clear? 

Gov. Polis: Our policy has been clear and consistent. It has followed the science and it's the same as the CDC. CDC doesn't require it for schools. We don't require it for schools. CDC says it prevents spread in schools. We say it prevents spread in schools. CDC says you should wear a mask. And that's what I say.

Warner: A state senator on the legislature's Audit Committee says that when it comes to COVID-19 tests, your administration has ‘wasted millions of taxpayer dollars, and more critically, endangered the health and safety of Colorado's most vulnerable populations.’ In requesting an audit, one example Republican Rob Woodward of Loveland points to is that the state, ‘ultimately paid a new and unproven company called Curative $89 million that resulted in a failed testing program in nursing homes’ Indeed, this is a test that Colorado no longer uses. What's your response to his concern there? 

Gov. Polis: We use a variety of vendors in our nursing homes. In fact, the Colorado data shows that Curative was really just as effective as other labs that we use, and there's still many states that use them: Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Mississippi, and Washington DC. And many other private sector businesses and municipalities all still use this vendor that we canceled, just because we couldn't be sure that their performance would be the same as others. But our data shows, in fact, over the period in question, that their performance was comparable to other contractors for testing.

Warner: They were producing false results, though. And in the chaos of early pandemic nursing homes, that's a problem. So was there some intervention that your administration ought to have engaged in earlier when that came to these tests? 

Gov. Polis: We worked very creatively to get testing early on. It's one of the reasons that Colorado has such a great success story. And the fact we're in the bottom 10 states for death rate per capita is because we embraced testing early. We worked with every vendor to scale up to the ability they could.

I hope you remember those days where testing was scarce. We had to scrounge around. We imported tests from South Korea, working with [then-]Senator [Cory] Gardner to get them here. We worked with a variety of vendors. None of whom alone would be able to offer the scale that we needed for our entire state. And because of embracing testing, we were able to have one of the lower mortality rates.

Warner: You paint a rather rosy picture of COVID deaths and rates in Colorado compared to other states. But, at one point, it was some of the worst in nursing homes in the country, in Colorado, for deaths. So I want to acknowledge that chapter in Colorado's pandemic history. 

Gov. Polis: Well, first, every death is a tragedy for the kid, the aunt, the uncle, the cousin, the friends, somebody else who's not coming home. No death should be an opportunity for a political party to score cheap political points off the tragedy.

What we have in Colorado is about 7,500 people have died from the virus. Each one of those is a tragedy. In the context of that, we are in the bottom 10 states per capita death rates. I'm proud of that. We're currently sixth-lowest in COVID cases.

Warner: Let’s move to climate change and air quality. We got a lot of questions about this on Twitter. People have a lot of concerns about ground-level ozone, which can cause coughing, shortness of breath. It can worsen asthma and bronchitis. There were more ozone alerts on the Front Range this summer than at any time since the state began keeping records a decade ago, and car emissions are a major ingredient. Twitter user @elemdoubleu says the Polis administration “talks about air quality when we get smoke from further west. But what about the larger issue that is within our control, ozone? Will [Polis] put in place policies that reduce driving and oil and gas emissions, particularly on bad air days?

Gov. Polis: Well, first of all, the absolutely horrific air quality that we experienced for several weeks this summer was because of those fires in California.

Warner: That is patently not true, Governor. We know that the primary source

Gov. Polis: It's absolutely true. Ryan; Ryan, it's absolutely true. And what you said is false. It is the air quality from the Dixie Fire that caused the problems. If you're talking about ground ozone, that's a totally different issue. I'm talking about the air quality that I heard about from constituents across the state, [which was] almost entirely [from] the Dixie Fires. Not Colorado, not our cars, ground ozone is different. That's not the air quality issue that I hear about from constituents every day.

Warner: But certainly, you must admit though, that ozone and air quality are related. 

Gov. Polis: Ozone is a component of air quality but it's not one that I heard about from anybody. What I heard about is ‘I can't breathe because there's ashes in the air. I can't even see 100 yards from my home. I'm coughing and I'm sick. And I encourage people to go out and get COVID tests because those are some of the same symptoms that COVID has.

And last summer [in 2020], that was the result of some of the fires in Colorado, the three largest fires in the history of our state, directly related to climate change. Which is why my administration has essentially declared a climate emergency around taking urgent actions to reduce our carbon emissions across every sector and achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. We've already locked in place 80 percent renewable energy by 2030. This is a crisis that we're directly seeing in the impact of fires, the mudslides in Glenwood Canyon this summer. We have two heavily dependent climate industries in our state, agriculture, tourism and recreation, including skiing, that are directly on the vanguard being impacted by the climate crisis.

Warner: It's true that I can't substantiate what people were complaining to you about. But I do know that the state risks becoming a severe violator when it comes to ozone under the EPA, that could increase federal regulation. As you've said, ozone is a component of air quality. I ask you then, separate from the fires, is this summer's bad air a reflection that you are moving too slowly, Governor? 

Gov. Polis: Well, first of all, we're moving as fast as we can on climate. That's one of the reasons I ran for office. This is an emergency that calls for emergency-level response. When I got elected, we convened a climate cabinet, which is everything: the Department of Transportation, Natural Resources. The cabinet meets regularly to take the steps that we can as a state to act.

Colorado had bad air quality as a result of the wildfires. And guess what? We weren't alone. There were many other cities across the American West that had the worst air quality in the nation at different times. Bend, Oregon, Salt Lake City, Reno, Boise. Small cities and large cities. And this was across rural Colorado and urban Colorado. And it is a climate-related crisis.

I think some of the advocates might be talking about it the wrong way. What they should be saying is, ‘Look at this, because of the drier, longer summer and hotter conditions, we are having record forest fires.’ And that's yet another reason that we need to take action now on climate. With a hotter drier climate there is an extreme risk of fire, which not only destroys property, but it's also fair to talk about the significant impact in air quality from large-scale fires.

Warner: Overall, transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state and your goal is to reduce emissions in the transportation sector 40 percent by 2030. But the state's energy director said last week that existing rules will only get the state about two-thirds of the way there. And the rest is based on policies either that don't yet exist or that depend on federal money. Can the state reach its goal when it comes to emissions from cars and trucks? 

Gov. Polis: Well, there we go, Ryan. You say that the glass is one-third empty. I say the glass is two-thirds full. How exciting it is that we are two-thirds of the way in place — locked in place — towards reaching our 2030 goal of reducing transportation by 40 percent. That leaves eight more years to figure out the other one-third of filling that up and of course, we're going to figure that out. 

A big part of that, frankly, is Senate Bill 260, which which is a forward-looking green approach to transportation. For the first time ever, we're funding zero-emission vehicle support, charging stations, multimodal transportation, all locked in place. Of course, we also are adopting policies to rapidly move to electric vehicles, along with the greener grid, which is a big part of achieving those 2030 goals and beyond.

Warner: Before we go, I want to talk about one last topic: the state income tax. I was interested in comments you made recently to a meeting in Steamboat Springs. You favor eliminating the state income tax. Why? 

Gov. Polis: Well, certainly, with regard to any tax, I think every Coloradan feels the lower the better. At the same time, of course, we need to fund our schools, our roads and other important public priorities.

I think that there are better ways to do it than the income tax. The income tax is a tax on profit, a tax on success. I would rather find a way to tax things we don't, like pollution. We talked about air quality — what a great way to reduce ozone if, instead of taxing the income, you tax some of the precursors, or the types of activities that form ozone in your state that are ground level. So look forward to exploring those opportunities to reduce and or eliminate the income tax to help make Colorado more successful.

Warner: When you say reduce, would you do that across the board? Or would you, say, reduce it for poorer folks and tax wealthier folks at a higher rate? What do you think? 

Gov. Polis: I think reducing it is more realistic than getting rid of it. I said, as a statement of principle, I would love not to have it. Of course that's true. I don't view that as something that I'm pursuing, Ryan. I'm not saying get rid of it.

What I would advocate for is reducing it. When I came into office, the income tax rate was 4.63 percent. It is now, on a permanent basis, 4.55 percent and for next year, we'll be 4.5 percent. So we're knocking it down. At the same time, we're making sure it doesn't take one dime out of our public schools or any other priority. We're finding new ways to invest at record levels in public education, preschool, kindergarten, in healthcare, and now roads with our new transportation infrastructure package, which invests $5 billion in green infrastructure and traditional infrastructure over the next decade.

Warner: If you were to tax pollution, who would you tax? Give me an example of that, on the ground where the ozone is? 

Gov. Polis: You and I, in the course of a conversation, are not going to develop a new tax system to replace the income tax. But, I think there's a lot of good ideas out there that have been explored. It's something that the United States Congress and Senator [John] Hickenlooper have been looking at supporting. It's something that I think it's high time for at the state level to have that conversation. And even if it's not going to abolish the income tax, maybe instead of 4.5 [percent], we can knock it down to three-and-a-half or three, or two-and-a-half. On a revenue-neutral basis. I want your listeners [to] understand when I say that I'm not talking about anything that would cost our schools or roads or healthcare one dime. In fact, there could be opportunities to invest even more in our schools through reducing the income tax.

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