A COVID-19 Conversation with Governor Jared Polis
This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Colorado School of Public Health, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Institute for Science & Policy. Find all of our previous COVID-19 webinars and recaps here.
Since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Colorado on March 5, 2020, Governor Jared Polis has led the state's proactive response, balancing public safety with social activity and the economy. He has been at the helm during the greatest public health and policy challenge in more than a century and stopped by to provide an update on vaccine distribution and preview what’s ahead in 2021.
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Watch the full recording here.
KRISTAN UHLENBROCK: It’s my great pleasure to welcome the Governor today. We’re going to hear a little bit about what’s happening with the state and what his outlook is for the road ahead. Good morning, Governor. How are you today?
GOVERNOR JARED POLIS: Good, Kristan. Good morning to you. Thanks for having me.
KU: I don’t want to spend any time with introductions, because you don’t need them, but maybe you could give us a few minutes overview of where we are as a state and our current COVID-19 cases and how we’re looking with our current vaccine rollout.
JP: Sure, and I’d like to thank the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for doing this COVID series. In normal times, I’d be taking our kids there and it’s a wonderful presence in the community. I’d like to thank you, the Colorado School of Public Health, and Dr. Samet and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the Institute for Science & Policy. I’m excited to be with you for this important conversation.
This has been a difficult pandemic for so many reasons. It’s really about balancing challenges, and obviously first and foremost in our minds, condolences to all those who have suffered a loss. Over 400,000 Americans, over 4,500 Coloradans. Every one of them a brother, sister, aunt, uncle, mother, father, friend, a loved one. I’ve lost two friends to this deadly virus and I know that most of us have across the entire world, which truly shows that we’re all in this together.
At the same time, I want to show great respect for the triumph of modern science. This short vaccination development process has been absolutely incredible, developed in a matter of a couple months. Obviously, it took many more months to test and ramp up production. But here we are less than a year from the first cases in Colorado last March. Less than a year in, and in 10 months, and we have two highly effective vaccines, hopefully a third or fourth at some point soon.
Every vaccine we get in the state, we are using right away to protect somebody 70 and up. Why the prioritization, why 70? lt turns out that when you look at the data, 78% or so — just over three quarters of our deaths in Colorado — have been people age 70 and up and it's about 40% of our hospitalizations. So we can reduce our hospitalizations by almost half, really removing that daily threat that looms over our hospital system. There's been times we've had to act as our hospitals are at risk of overflowing. We haven't had those same horror stories here where they've actually exceeded capacity, but there was a time in early December where if the trajectory hadn't changed, but it continued for a few more weeks, we would have been in a very difficult straits with regard to our hospitals.
Fortunately, Colorado has stepped up to do the right thing: stop socializing with people outside of their home, wear masks. Really, people are acting because we care about our own lives, we care about the lives of our loved ones because this while this virus, as we indicated, three quarters of deaths are over 70, it also can strike down anybody in their prime. We've lost people in their 20s, their 30s, their 40s. About a third of hospitalizations are people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. So, you know, it's important to protect the most vulnerable and that will remove the strain on hospitalization.
To put things in perspective, we'll be able to vaccinate about 110,000-120,000 people over age 70 this week. That's about one in five Coloradans over age 70 who will get their first dose of the life saving vaccine this week. Now, that doesn't mean that they're immune the next day. They have some increased immunity in about two weeks after that first dose but it's estimated only be around 50 or 60%, so it's similar to wearing a mask. If you wear a mask and I've had one dose, you have a little bit more protection. It's the second dose about a month later that will provide 95% protection, which is really a gold standard for the most effective vaccines out there. And that truly will end the pandemic. We've now vaccinated, with at least the first vaccine, just under 6% of all Coloradans. So about one in 19 Coloradans have gotten at least their first vaccination, and are on the protection clock, is the way I refer to it. They're on the clock for protection: a little bit of protection in two weeks, a lot of protection in six weeks, and that number will only go up.
We have been very frustrated with the erratic nature of the federal supply chain. We literally find out how many vaccines we're going to get about three or four days before we get them. We'll use them, but it would be a lot more cohesive to have a week or two notice on what we're going to get. We've also, as you know, gotten incorrect information a number of times. There was this whole discussion about when we release the doses that were being held back, which were the second doses, to administer as the first. We did that in a small scale in Colorado, but the question was, would the federal government do that, freeing up potentially about 200,000 doses in Colorado within a week. Then Secretary [Alex] Azar said yes, we're going to send them out and then a few days later they say, by the way, we don't have that, you're not getting any additional.
Now, I hope the new incoming administration handles this competently and tracks those down. I still believe that there are doses held back there. I don't think they're held back by the federal government, but based on the statements by Pfizer and Moderna, I believe that additional doses that they have that are awaiting instructions on where to ship. I'm confident with the administration's aggressive goal of 100 million people vaccinated in 100 days that they will really scrape every corner to administer this life-saving vaccine.
We’ve distributed in a variety of ways in Colorado. For most people over 70, they are a customer of a hospital, they've been in for something at some point, you know Kaiser, UC Health, wherever they go. Therefore, they can be notified by that hospital by telephone, by email, about where to get it. But we also have about a quarter of Coloradans that are not necessarily a customer of a hospital, so they're a little harder to find. We've done everything from vaccination clinics at a predominantly black church in Denver, to stand up clinics in central Colorado and San Luis in Alamosa where, you know, everybody in town 70 and up comes by and then gets vaccinated. And we're going to do more of that. But the bulk of it, the workhorses of the vaccination process, a majority are through UC Health, Kaiser, the hospitals, community health clinics and the many others that are in the community serving the medically underserved, about 10% through pharmacies, Safeway, your local pharmacy.
So that's how it's getting out, but it's extremely constrained by the supply. Next week, while we haven't gotten the hard numbers yet, we're only expected about 80,000 vaccines for our entire state of 5.7 million. So you can do the math. Until the supplies increase, it's going to be a frustrating few months as we see the end in sight of the pandemic but can't quite grasp that until we rapidly accelerate the percentage of Coloradans who are effectively prevented from at least developing some major symptoms and hopefully from even acquiring this deadly virus.
It's always been a challenge — everything is about public health. But when you think about it, the ability to pay rent and put food on the table is a public health issue. Feed your family, not be cast out onto the streets...that's a public health issue too, as is the social and emotional health of Coloradans. Humans are social animals, we're not evolved to be alone for long periods of time. And it's been very challenging to find reasonably safe ways to structure, you know, youth sports, which have been occurring obviously over summer.
Many kids have been back in school, the majority of school districts have been back, but some of the bigger school districts have not. One of our big priorities is to get those school districts back, at least for the younger kids. And that's very important from a public health perspective. I think that the best place that the kid can be. It's a safe work environment for educators, it's one of the safer work environments, far safer than you know retail work environments where folks have had to go to work every day and we've taken extraordinary steps to make it as safe as possible with layer protections for teachers and students including mask wearing, social distancing ventilation, symptom checking, and most recently we announced 2 million tests a month for our schools to really elevate our schools to the level of the Denver Broncos or Nuggets or Rockies that had that level of testing. I met with some Broncos players, went into their bubble and saw what they did. We have that ability now in our schools, locally administered, but the state is providing those 2 million tests a month free of charge to help make sure that our schools are safe as possible.
So that's some of the work we're up to, Kristan, and I'd be happy to address questions that your esteemed audience has.
KU: You gave me a lot of kind of different webs and strings to kind of pull on and unpack there. I want to stick with vaccines just for a little bit and maybe we'll move into some of that federal comments that you had. We did have a lot about that kind of age group that is really a high risk, the 70+. What do you tell you know this older higher risk population as they're waiting? They're really scared, some of them can't find the vaccine, they're not in line yet, maybe they're far away...what would you say to them?
JP: Keep up the social distancing. It's only another month or two here. Some people 70 and up might have to wait two or three weeks, but it's coming very soon: some this week, some next week, some last week. We've already vaccinated about another 100,000 this week, so we'll have about 40% of everybody 70 and up by the end of this week. It's just one in five this week alone. It's a bigger week than usual because of the real time supply chain management that we went to, so keep up those precautions. We're almost there. I know it's tough. My kids haven't been able to see their grandparents, my parents, for 10 months. My parents got their first shot just a couple days ago. So they're on the clock, and in a month and a half from now, we'll be able to hang out safely together and I know there's a lot of families looking forward to that.
I saw in the chat that somebody got the ability to set up an appointment 60 miles away. That's difficult. It depends where they live, I mean if you're far away from population centers, you might have to travel 40, 50, 60 miles or wait. I mean, it will be in your area and a local pharmacy or Safeway, but that's a question that you have to answer. If you have the opportunity — I think this person said at UC Health — and then set up an appointment, I would if there's any way to get your loved one there, understanding that's not always possible. It simply means you might have to wait a few more weeks until there's one that's close by. But most of the population of Colorado does live close to some kind of hospital, pharmacy, or community health center. We always know that there's going to be some folks who aren’t and that's why we focused on, as I said, going into some of these small towns. I'll take us a while to get to all of them and doing vaccine clinics, usually working with the local fire department, local sheriff, for everybody age 17 and up.
KU: There's public polling and research that are showing maybe upwards of a third or so of folks are hesitant, or will not be getting the vaccine. So how does that factor into your planning for the long run as we try to get back to a semi normal or whatever this new normal state of affairs is, if there is this critical number that we need to reach for some sort of herd immunity via vaccines?
JP: Yeah, I really hope that number is lower for people over 70 and people over 60. I think it is, because people are rational and they understand the risk is much greater to them. If they are in their 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s. Our goal is 70% of people aged 70 vaccinated by the end of February. We hope that more people want it than that, but we realize it might take a little longer to get from 70% to 80% than it does to get from 60 to 70% because you're going to be dealing with folks who, you know, are somewhat reluctant to get it and I think would, if it's convenient, if it's easy, and they see their friends got it.
But ultimately, we'd love to reach 80% plus of people over 70 for the general population. With a vaccine this effective, I think as long as we get close to around 70%, we should be fine. That doesn’t mean coronavirus is gone, and if you don't get vaccinated, you absolutely have a risk of getting it. Probably a greater risk than you have of getting measles or mumps or other things that circulate because this is very contagious as well. And we don't yet know one data point: we don't know whether people who were vaccinated can transmit it. We know that they aren't likely to develop symptoms or get very sick, but with some diseases, as the case may be with COVID-19, is that even though you are protected, you might effectively be asymptomatic and potentially transmissible. So I think everybody should get it at least here for the first couple of years. And I think this will become a kind of routine shot that folks get, just like measles and mumps. Now again, not everybody gets it, and that's fine. Measles and mumps occur. They're rare. Hopefully this will be relegated to that status within a year or two.
KU: You briefly brought up a little bit about the 200,000 additional doses that had been promised and it turned out just wasn't there. What has been your take in general about the federal response to date, and any hopes for this incoming administration that takes office today?
JP: Yeah, I mean I think there's a lot of areas to improve upon finding where those extra vaccines are. If they're at Pfizer, if they're at Moderna. There's still, we hope, the approval of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine pending. That's a one shot vaccine and we don't yet know its level of efficacy. It might not be the full 95%, but how wonderful to have a one shot regime instead of a two shot regime.
A couple of people asked about 65 and up. The reason we're not able to give a date yet is we simply don't know the supply. My best guess is two to three weeks, it'll open up to 65 and up, but as I said we'll be at about 40% of the 70 and up by the end of this week. We need to be a bit higher before we open that up. None of us would want to take vaccine from an 82 year old to give to a healthy 66 year old. There's just a very different risk profile even in those 15 or 20 years. When you’re over 80, you have close to a 9% chance of dying of COVID. In your 60s, it's still around 1%.
Clearly based on the data, that's the next category. Whether that is two weeks from now, three weeks from now, or four weeks from now, the reason we can’t say is because we simply don't know how much vaccine we're getting from the federal government each week more than a few days in advance. I'm really hopeful that at least people can have a date, and set up those appointments soon. So if the one thing that the Biden administration can give us is a steady flow, and knowing what we're going to get when, they could say okay, the date is, you know, February 15 through February 28, and then after that, you can set up your appointment, etc.
Teachers are right after that. They’re in group 1B. Early March is the conservative date based on the supply we think we're getting but we really hope that it’s earlier. If we get more, it could be late February. So that's the next group up after 65 and a half.
KU: I would love your thoughts and reactions on some social, economic and racial inequities in our communities. Could you speak about some of the impacts to both the Black, Latino, Indigenous communities here in Colorado and what resources has been made available to this group that has been disproportionately impacted?
JP: The tribal nations in Colorado—the Southern Ute, the Mountain Ute in southern Utah—are working directly with the federal government and have their own prioritization supply as the nations that they are. We've developed a vaccine equity champions group. As I've indicated, we've had drive-thrus and we're going to have more black churches and also in some of the poorest, lowest income zip codes in Colorado and San Luis, predominantly Hispanic, very low income. So we're making a concerted effort to go outside of the conventional health care system to help reach those who are medically underserved.
Somebody said, you know, my provider doesn't have it, how do I get it? This is a great thing about this: you don't have to go to your normal provider. Your network doesn't matter, your insurance doesn't matter. It's free, it's paid for by the federal government. So look at COVID19.colorado.gov, look at the list of providers, and you can sign up to get it at UC Health even if you've never been there or Kaiser if you've never been there or Centura or at a local community health clinic. They are notifying their customers, of course, through email, through phone if they don't have email, but they also are vaccinating anybody who signs up who's not a customer and we've made that a priority. We said you need to have a public portal to take signups because we know that not everybody is a customer. So if your provider doesn't have it, you can sign up at COVID19.colorado.gov.
You don’t need a provider referral. You just have to verify that you're 70 and up. It doesn't mean that every branch of that hospital has it, especially some of those small ambulatory centers. It doesn't mean they're giving it there. You might have to drive. It just depends where they're giving it. And yes, you can sign up for two or three and then just cancel or don't respond when they give you an opportunity if you already have one. And I think, you know, if you're 70 up and you're on this call, you will get your chance in the next two to three weeks. I just can't guarantee you this week. One in five of you will be fortunate in this week. Next week, the week after.
We're not yet prioritizing 80 and up, we're just doing 70 and up as a category. While it'd be nice, it's just too hard to coordinate, so your chances are the same if you're 71 or 81. And chances are good. I mean, you're gonna get it in the next two or three weeks, I guarantee you, with the quantities we're getting. But it might not be this week, it might be next week, it might be the week after. So, you know, sign up at a provider, there's a number of them. You don't have to be a customer there doesn't have to be a network. It's all free. If anybody tries to charge you or get your credit card over the phone, it's a scam — do not give it. If you get that invitation by phone or email to set up an appointment, do it. And, even if it's a little inconvenient, miles away, that's not great but it might be the question of doing that now or waiting three weeks to do it closer, and you may want to do it now. If you're able to stay home and avoid others you may want to wait three weeks, and that's fine. So that's where we are. If you're 70 and up, your signup will come up in the next few weeks.
KU: I want you to look into your crystal ball for us, pull that out, and do a little forward thinking. What have been some major societal systemic changes that you think are going to last here in our state once this pandemic is over?
JP: Well, certainly more people are going to be able to telecommute than before. As a microcosm of this, use the state as an example. We have about 31,000 employees. During the height of the pandemic, we were as high as 65-70% telecommuting. Not everybody can telecommute. If you're a prison guard, if you're clearing snow on the road, you have to go in. But we've had about 65-70% telecommuting. What we expect a year from now, two years from now, is around 20 to 30% telecommuting. I think we can maximize productivity, employee morale, retention, and still have many people able to do their work even better from home if they choose to. They'll certainly have a place they can come in, and many companies are making a similar equation. We're going to be reducing our square footage of state government office space by a million square feet, saving taxpayer money and increasing productivity by allowing more workers to work at home.
KU: We often talk here at the Institute about the idea of trust, specifically trust in science, and science and politics and policy are very deeply interwoven in their relationship. We've seen that a thousandfold here with the COVID-19 pandemic. We also do see science being politicized at times, and that can impact people's trust in it. What's your take on this, through the lens of COVID-19? What do you see happening, how do we work through some of this politicization of science?
JP: Well, science is science, and the data and the science don't have an ideology. They might inform your actions, but they are simply the facts. I was really glad to see that President-Elect Biden has elevated a science officer to a cabinet level position, really showing the value that science has. Science doesn't make the decisions any easier. You got to look at the tradeoffs. There's health, there's public health, there’s an economic security issue, there's emotional and social health. But being informed by the data and really citing the data and science in making decisions is important, not just during the pandemic with regard to COVID, but really across every aspect of governance.
KU: We have just got a couple more minutes with you, so I do want to leave you maybe with a final word or a thought. You've been our Governor for two years now here in the state of Colorado and it's been a really trying last year for so many, including yourself. What has been most challenging for you for this past year, and what is your silver lining and outlook for the road ahead?
JP: I think we all are excited to move past this pandemic, which I think by summer, we will largely be out of that mindset and people will be vaccinated. And it doesn't mean nobody will get COVID, but certainly the most vulnerable will be vaccinated and it is a low risk disease for teenagers and kids, even in their 20s.
In Boulder, for instance, we had at least 1,000 cases and zero hospitalizations, right and that’s not atypical for 19 to 20 year olds. That would be very different when it goes through, let's say, a senior living facility with 80 residents and you might lose a lot. And that's happened in our state. So, the pandemic won't be over once we protect people over 70 and over 65. It'll be different, it'll feel different and hospitals will no longer be overcrowded. The deaths will still occur, but will be reduced by three quarters. So that's the sort of end of the crisis phase. The pandemic itself will be over in summer. Once we've reached a level of immunity among the general population, where the virus again might exist and if you'd if you're dumb enough not to get the vaccine you might get it and you still might die. But at least if you wanted the vaccine, you'll have the opportunity to be fully protected against it.
KU: We're really grateful for your time this morning. It is a big day for all of us and we're glad you're able to join us. Thank you to all your staff, CDPHE, and so many others in our state who have been working really hard and tirelessly to provide us with information. So thank you very much for joining us today, Governor.
JP: Thank you, Kristan and we look forward to, when it's safe and normal, bringing the family down to enjoy the museum. I assume you’re probably open? We could go now — we've actually had COVID, so we have probably lower risk — but we're not quite doing those kinds of things as a family yet. We will be looking forward to joining you all again in person. We love the museum and we hope to see you again soon.
KU: Great, we'd love to have you there, and yeah we've been open. We only closed for 100 days and we've had really safe protocols in place. We've been really thankful for the ability to be open in a really safe way for many, many years.
JP: And that's really the challenge we all face. That’s why the schools being back is so important. The answer is not to not do anything, it's to do it in a very safe way. I've visited many schools in the last few months who've been fully open and, you know, teachers are excited, students are excited. But it doesn't look like a school two years ago. You wouldn't know what you're walking into. I mean, everybody's wearing masks, the kids are three feet apart in the classroom and windows open if they have it. They have instant symptom checking. It's remarkable, but it works. And that's what's so exciting. It doesn't mean that no transmissions ever occur at your museum but it's a low risk environment, just like schools are.
Some people, especially in their 70s and 80s, are just not going out and I totally get that. My parents are in that crowd, they're 76, but for most of us, it's about balancing that risk and just like there's a risk of getting in a car accident when you're driving, you know, to a museum or to a school, nothing is zero risk. But I think you're doing a great job with the protocols you have and it's a reasonably safe environment for families to enjoy in this very difficult time and of course we all look forward to putting this in the rear view window.
KU: Thank you very much for joining us today, Governor, and thank you to all of our audience for tuning in.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.