Interview: Gov. Jared Polis on omicron, climate change and helping the survivors of the Marshall fire
Despite the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the omicron variant in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis still believes the medical emergency is over, and he has no plans to enact crisis standards for hospitals.
Hospitalizations have been hovering around 1,660 for four days, and hospitals are reporting immense strain in staffing, capacity and burnout. Some health care workers have called on the governor to enact crisis standards that would activate federal money to help with staffing shortages and give doctors protections as they triage.
But Polis told Colorado Matters that the current wave isn’t nearly as bad as the early days of the pandemic, when there was no equipment or testing infrastructure. He also said he expects to see omicron infections to go down within the next few weeks based on data from other areas whose omicron surges began before the one in Colorado.
“What we are seeing from the projections and the data is that we actually expect things to get better, not worse,” Polis said. “There are states, and there are countries that are two to three weeks ahead of where we are. And we watch very carefully every day. And we extrapolate where we expect Colorado to go … omicron burns through rapidly — it leads to a quicker, higher peak, and then a slope down that they're already experiencing in the cities and states that are two to three weeks ahead of us. So we are, we've already seen a stabilization of the positivity rate.”
Polis also has no plans to enact a statewide mask mandate, preferring to leave it to local authorities to govern masking. However, the state said they will provide free medical-grade KN95 masks for Coloradans.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Ryan Warner: Governor, thank you for being with us again.
Gov. Jared Polis: Ryan, it's great to see you, and it's been a while since we've done this in person, so it's great to do this in person again and get to see you face to face.
Warner: We tested and are sitting at a big round table in your office at the Capitol. In our last interview on December 10th, you told us when it comes to the pandemic, the medical emergency is over. Since we spoke, omicron has hit hard, hospitalizations are near the all time peak and crisis standards of care are not only in effect for healthcare staffing, but emergency medical services, think ambulances and medics. Do you still believe that the medical emergency is over?
Gov. Polis: Yeah, and it's important to talk about what I was saying. You might remember in the first days of the pandemic in early 2020, there was a crisis in the sense that we had no masks, no gloves, no equipment. Even in hospitals, people had to use the same mask for a week, and we had to fight for every ventilator we had.
There are now plenty of supplies. We have capacity. We've been in the 90 to 93 percent capacity — that's not where the hospital system normally is, to be clear. Normally, it's closer to 80 percent. [Right now,] about 20 percent of the people in hospitals are there for COVID, and about 80 percent of them are there for something else.
Omicron is more contagious, but thankfully demonstrably less severe. It can still, if you're unvaccinated, hospitalize you and be very difficult. But for those who are vaccinated, of course, like any flu or cold, you don't want to get it, but it usually very seldom requires hospitalization or endangers your life.
Warner: You sound somewhat calm when it comes to the hospital situation. It's not the note that emergency physicians are sounding. The Colorado Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians has told you we are at a breaking point. We are currently dealing with conditions that have never been seen in our state. Against that backdrop they're asking you to activate crisis standards for hospitals, which they say will offer certain protections to physicians who have to triage, and potentially unlock federal money to help with staffing shortages. Will you declare those crisis standards for hospitals?
Gov. Polis: Well, first of all, everybody is exhausted, Ryan. Of course, first and foremost our health care workers. This has been hard on them, but you know what? It's been hard on teachers. It's been hard on grocery store workers. It's been hard on every single Coloradan.
As governor, I really sympathize with everybody, what everybody's had to go through in this pandemic and of course our health care workers above and beyond. That's why one of our legislative proposals is to waive the licensing fees for nurses, for mental health professionals, so they won't have to pay to keep their license current. We'll effectively make their license to practice free for a year as some small show of recognition that also helps their bottom line.
Warner: To be clear, you don't have plans at this point to activate crisis standards of care for hospitals?
Gov. Polis: Well, you have to look at how that's done, Ryan. There is a committee called the GEEERC and our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Eric France. I have never counteracted or not approved what he has sought. This is not something that the chief medical officer of the state is seeking at this point.
Warner: Dr. Ricky Dhaliwal, who is President of the Colorado Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians said, “We are in a crisis, and the thing about it is that this is a crisis that's now, and it's about to get worse. The wait and see approach — just, I don't think is a smart way to do this in this situation.” There seems to be a gap between what you think healthcare workers need right now and what they think they need right now. How do you bridge that gap?
Gov. Polis: Well, first of all, if things get worse, he's right. That's what his assumption is.
Warner: I think he's also anticipating incredible burnout in the months to come.
Gov. Polis: To be clear, what we are seeing from the projections and the data is that we actually expect things to get better. With Omicron, there are states and countries that are two to three weeks ahead of where we are. We watch very carefully every day, and we extrapolate where we expect Colorado to go. You have South Africa three weeks ahead of us, London two weeks ahead of us and the east coast of our own country, 7 to 10 days ahead of us.
What we see in all those cases is because of the contagious nature of Omicron, it leads to a quicker, higher peak and then a slope down that they're already experiencing in the cities and states that are two to three weeks ahead of us.
We've already seen a stabilization of the positivity rate. We have already seen a stabilization, meaning the hospital count, at least the last few days, has not gone up. It stayed relatively steady.
The best answer I can give is God forbid, if [Dhaliwal] is right and it gets worse, then of course, Dr. France will likely advance the kind of measures that he discussed. If the projections that we're seeing are correct, and that it peaks in the next week or so and then decreases, then it's very unlikely those types of measures would need to be taken.
Warner: The physician's group in its letter says there's a lack of access to rapid testing, and that as a result, many patients who are not ill or minimally ill are coming to the emergency department. That adds further stress they say, and exposes other patients to potentially lethal disease. How are you addressing that lack of access to rapid tests?
Gov. Polis: I want to address that square on, but there's actually two different things here. First of all, test or no test, if you're not severely ill and you're mildly ill, you should not go to the emergency room. I mean, whether it's COVID or not COVID, if you have minor cold-like symptoms, you don't go to an emergency room. Now, if your condition is worse and you have trouble breathing, that's what our healthcare system is there for.
We have over a hundred community testing sites across the state. Because of the increase in demand in testing across the entire country, unfortunately the processing time has gone up to about two to three days from one to two days.
Two to three days is not ideal, and there's specific incidences where it has been four or five days, which is terrible. Generally speaking, if you go to a community site, in two to three days you'll get the result. We hope to get it back down to one to two days.
Warner: By when?
Gov. Polis: Within the next week or so we hope to get it back down to under two days, which is our goal, including at the state lab, which is just over two days right now.
The other testing program we have, the rapid tests, were never designed or marketed as diagnostic tests. When we first launched [the program] and we had less demand and more supply, we said you'll get them to you in four or five days. If you're sick, you go to a community testing site. Don't delay.
That program, the free rapid test, which now President Biden and the country are rolling out and we're very grateful for.
Warner: That's right. They will be federally available.
Gov. Polis: Yes. That is now about a ten day to two week wait time for when you sign up for one in Colorado and when you get it. Folks who are connected to schools might get it a little bit quicker. That's another one that over the next week or two, we hope to decrease [the wait time] so people get it within a week of when they request it.
Warner: How are you doing that?
Gov. Polis: Increasing supply, so we added another vendor. Historically, they had been the Binax test. We now added another one [that has] very good data about its efficacy, iHealth, and so those are going to start being in the mix in the next few days, and that gives us additional supply to send out to people.
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Warner: Last time we spoke, you said that with vaccines being widely available, it is not the state's job to mandate masks and you leave that to local public health officials. Is that still your position today? Lots of people ask this question each time we speak with you and I want to make sure it's clear.
Gov. Polis: Yes, I'm nothing if not consistent, Ryan. We're at 84 percent vaccination in Colorado. That's the adult vaccination rate, if you add in everybody, it's a little bit lower. But 84 percent of adults are protected. That's been our main message is that while, of course, you don't want to get sick and should wear a mask around others indoors. Generally speaking, if you're vaccinated and you're otherwise healthy, this virus is very unlikely to jeopardize your life.
Warner: Do you think that this omicron wave — and the enormous stress that hospitals, nurses and doctors are under — would have been less severe if there had been a statewide mask mandate in place, because we know that masks work too?
Gov. Polis: What masks can do on the individual level is decrease your risk of getting it. I would add, finally, the CDC caught up with the data and said medical-grade masks. Because while the cloth mask may have some impact, if you really want to reduce your risk, you should frankly wear a N95 or KN95. That is what doctors in COVID wards wore even before the vaccine, and it was very effective in preventing it.
We're going to be rolling out free medical-grade K95 masks available to every Coloradan. Generally speaking, if you keep your mask in good shape, the health experts say you can wear it for about a week.
At the individual level, we know that masks can work. At the population level, what they can do for instance with omicron is they can spread it out a little bit if more people wear masks, but they're not going to reduce the number of people overall that get it before it burns through.
You might have a slightly longer and lower peak for a sustained period of time, rather than having it all at once. Right now, we have areas of our state that have required indoor mask wearing and areas that don't. We don't see a demonstrable difference in the level of COVID transmission in those different areas of our state.
Warner: The Biden administration's vaccination requirement for large employers is on hold because of maneuvering by the U.S. Supreme Court. If that's struck down entirely, could you foresee a vaccine mandate in Colorado for large employers?
Gov. Polis: Well, I know that there are some large employers that have those kinds of requirements.
Warner: Would you take on the Biden mantle, in other words?
Gov. Polis: For our state workers — we have 31,000 state workers — you're either vaccinated or you get tested once a week. That will continue for now. We hope that there's a time in the next few months, if the virus transmission levels get much lower, where that can go away.
But in the meantime, our state workers know that they have the assurance that if their person that works with them is not vaccinated, at least they've been tested recently to show that they're not contagious. And we have caught several hundred people that unknowingly had COVID and we were able to prevent them from then infecting others in the state workforce through that testing.
Warner: It sounds like you think your purview is the state workforce. I don't hear you stepping in and saying other large private employers would face a mandate.
Gov. Polis: No, that's really up to them, Ryan.
And it's a difficult challenge. I know that there's resort and hospitality companies that have generally been more aggressive about requiring vaccinations because they want to reassure their guests. There are other industries where that [requirement] would probably be devastating, and we've seen the effects on things like construction, law enforcement.
Culturally, these are fields that have a lower vaccination rate, and by the way, it's tragic when we lose a law enforcement officer to COVID unnecessarily because they weren't vaccinated, absolutely tragic. But we have difficulty even maintaining the workforce we have, so it's very unlikely that very many — I think Denver did this, but very few others across the state would likely require vaccinations.
Warner: One last question on COVID. Do you think that you would mandate a third shot for state workers? Right now, it's the first two, not the booster, that's mandated.
Gov. Polis: I've tried to avoid calling it a booster. The three vaccines are absolutely critical to have a high level of resistance against Omicron, and also to refresh your immunity from the two.
Warner: That third shot is not currently required for state workers, correct?
Gov. Polis: Well, none of them are required. If you're not vaccinated with two, you have to [get tested] every week.
Warner: Would you up that requirement to three vaccines?
Gov. Polis: We might.
Warner: Let's move to the deadly Marshall Fire. More than a thousand homes were destroyed, and businesses were decimated as well. In the aftermath, will your administration push for any specific policy changes? I don't want to limit the scope by any means, but I'm thinking in the realm of land use, building codes and climate policy.
Gov. Polis: Potentially yes on all of those. Immediately, we're going to look at some insurance claim reforms that come out of experiences that some of the families had. This could happen to any family, whether it's a fire or flood, but how can folks who lose everything have more money released to them upfront if they have effectively been totaled and lost?
As you know, unfortunately, any changes made won't necessarily impact those impacted by the Marshall Fire, but they would be in effect going forward.
One of the things we're seeking [during] this legislative session is a historic investment in pollution reduction, in clean air. In our budget, we outlined over $400 million — a very substantial investment — in everything from better air monitoring, to electric school buses, to clean trucks, to a variety of other areas where we can make a tangible impact on cleaner air quality and reducing our impact on the climate.
Warner: While you delivered your State of the State address, there was a counter protest about climate and people who don't see your efforts as redoubling, and who fundamentally would like to see few fossil fuels taken from the ground. What do you say to those who believe that the Marshall Fire is an opportunity for change at a breakneck pace in this regard?
Gov. Polis: Well, I didn't get to see [the protest] because I was obviously inside giving the speech. So, I don't know what they were saying. But look, let's make sure we don't victimize the victims of the fire: these are people who lost everything they had. While some of them have different political opinions and it's an area where probably most of them are happy to have a conversation about climate change and what we should do, we need to understand that this is an enormous loss and politicians shouldn't try to use that for other purposes. We should sympathize —
Warner: Do you think it's politicizing the Marshall Fire to ask you about climate change?
Gov. Polis: You did ask me about climate change and I answered that.
Warner: But you do think that is politicizing it?
Gov. Polis: Look, as I said, how many more homes and businesses must we lose before we take bold action on climate change? That's one of the reasons I ran for governor. A goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2040; We are now on the pathway to be over 80 percent renewable energy by 2030. We're going to get there: it's locked in. And I'm proud to say that electric vehicle sales in our state were 12.8 percent of all vehicles sold last month. So, this is moving very quickly, and we're doing everything we can through our clean infrastructure and roads package that we passed last year to our historic investment that we hope to make in air quality this year.
Warner: There are folks who want you to declare a climate emergency, and who wonder if there might be further powers unlocked if you were to do something like that. Have you considered using emergency powers around climate?
Gov. Polis: Well, we need to beat the climate crisis head on. I think what we have fortunately is a legislature here in Colorado: there are democratic majorities in both chambers that believe, just as I do, that the climate is an emergency and we need to act on it. So what we do, we do in tandem and we work with our legislative partners.
For instance, the governor doesn't have the power of the purse, the power to spend money. That's why we go to the legislature seeking the $400 million investment in air quality. We hope they step up and they join us in doing this.
Boulder County has rules on how to better build homes to survive wildfires. None of them applied where 1,000+ homes burned in Marshall fire
Warner: Have leaders in Louisville and Superior reached out to your administration with concerns about their property tax base, which is presumably decimated because of the fire? I mean, is that something the state can help with?
Gov. Polis: There are a whole host of concerns. We want to see what we can do as a state on this. We want to make sure we help the two towns, as well as unincorporated Boulder County, the third jurisdiction here where homes were destroyed. We want to make sure that people can rebuild as quickly as possible, [which is] especially challenging given the supply constraints and the labor constraints. Because for communities to thrive, people need to live there. Parents want to be able to live near their kids' school and live near where they work and have that quality of life back.
Warner: Should they rebuild differently?
Gov. Polis: Well, ultimately it will be each homeowner that decides what they do. Of course, we want to, as a community, talk about fire or resiliency, energy efficiency. We are hoping, in working with our legislative partners, to have additional funds that can come through to rebuild in a more resilient and energy efficient manner.
Warner: Would there be state help for that?
Gov. Polis: That's one of our proposals that we hope the legislature acts on is to provide additional state help for better fire resiliency and energy efficiency as people rebuild. But keep in mind, each person will of course be working on rebuilding their own house. Others who want to move on will sell that right and that land is somebody else and move.
Warner: Now, we talked a lot about homeowners, but let’s shift our focus to renters. Anne Dirkse of Loveland asked, “as someone who was displaced by the 2013 floods, I'd like to know what protections are in place for renters after the Marshall Fire?” For example, if a renter is living in a damaged home, what is the obligation of the landlord to ensure that FEMA dollars are used for repairs? And finally, how will you prevent landlords from raising rent astronomically to keep renters in their homes?”
Gov. Polis: Money from FEMA should flow through to the individual that it's designed to impact. There are specific FEMA programs around rental assistance; we also have additional state help on those rental issues. There were a number of areas, especially in the Sagamore development, that were completely destroyed. A number of those units were long-term rentals. And so, there's a specific set of issues that renters face, and we're going to use all the flexibility that we can to help make sure that they have a place to live and that they're held harmless to the extent possible for the damage to the place that they were renting.
Warner: I want to ask you about a major theme of your recent State of the State address: saving Coloradans money. You paraphrased the Paul Simon song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” saying you have 50 ways to save people money. Governor, you're facing reelection and I gather this is going to be a thrust of your campaign. I'm going to put this starkly: are you essentially saying, "Vote for me, Coloradans. I'm going to line your pockets, and here's 50 ways I'll do it."
Gov. Polis: I'm going to give you 50 ways to save you money. This is the very DNA of who I am in our administration. You might recall one of my first acts was to create the office of saving people money on health care: we have reduced rates in the individual market for health care by 24 percent out-of-pocket in insulin drugs. It's looking at all these big cost pockets that people have and saying, "How can we reduce fees? How can we save you money?"
Last year, I signed the landmark transportation bill that reduced vehicle registration fees by over $11 per vehicle. Now, what we're seeking is continuing that. We want to make it free to start a business in Colorado: no incorporation fees, free to start a business. This has been part of our agenda from the start. I think we really put it in focus now when families are feeling more crunched than ever with costs going up on consumer goods, with gas at $3.80 cents a gallon. People just want some relief, and we're excited to work creatively with Republicans and Democrats to do it.
Warner: Republicans say that Democrats are contributing to the crunch people feel. You mentioned the landmark transportation legislation last year, which while it may have reduced some fees, also placed new ones on gasoline. Republicans are saying, "Oh, well one of your ideas to save people money is to reverse the fees you, Governor, signed into law last session." How do you respond?
Gov. Polis: Well, look, I mean, the Republicans voted en masse against many of the ways we want to save people money: whether it's the Colorado option, whether it's prescription drug negotiating for better rates. Not a single Republican supported any of those. Of course, Republicans also have good ideas on reducing fees and saving money. We just want to take the best from both parties. And of course in the long run, we all know we need to pay for our roads. In fact that was a bipartisan bill I signed. What it did is it reduced vehicle registration fees, but it indexed a gas fee which would slowly go up over time —
Warner: Which now you want to reverse.
Gov. Polis: Absolutely, because we're saying now is not the time, right? This is a fine policy. You do avoid inflation negating any funds for our roads, but you don't do it when gas is $3.80 a gallon and families are struggling. So absolutely, now's the time to push that ahead and avoid any gas fee increases when families are hurting.
Warner: Before we go, King Soopers' workers are on strike. Points of contention include wages and workplace safety. Yes or no: are you avoiding the stores during the strike governor?
Gov. Polis: I am. I don't cross the picket line, and I hope that the workers are able to negotiate better safety, better healthcare, better wages. Most of all as a Coloradan, I hope that both sides can get this done quickly for the convenience of Coloradans who want to shop again at King Soopers and are inconvenienced.
Warner: Is there any sense that your administration would intervene at all as a mediator?
Gov. Polis: We don't have that legal authority. It's under the federal jurisdiction.
Warner: Governor, thank you so much for your time.
Gov. Polis: Thank you, Ryan. Always a pleasure.
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