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A health alert for people traveling to China is shown at a TSA security checkpoint at the Denver International Airport Monday, March 2, 2020, in Denver. Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo

What Does a State of Emergency Really Mean for Colorado?

On Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency due to the spreading coronavirus outbreak. But the move will help free up resources for those affected, and is not meant to incite panic.

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Editor’s note, 3/12/20: This article has been updated with new information.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency in Colorado over the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, a step he said will give the state access to resources that can combat the virus as well as more legal flexibility to protect the most vulnerable Coloradans. 

The announcement came amid reports of new cases of COVID-19 in Colorado. As of Thursday morning, there are at least 72 presumptive positive cases and one indeterminate positive case in the state, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). By Wednesday evening, one case had been confirmed by the CDC, according to a CDPHE representative. As the number of novel coronavirus cases in the U.S. tops 1,000, Colorado joins more than a dozen other states in enacting emergency powers, an action typically reserved for natural disasters like floods and wildfires

But what does the executive order actually mean for residents? 

In short, it means Colorado, which announced its first COVID-19 case on Thursday, March 5 is expanding access to testing and also enacting legal measures designed to contain the spread of the virus, protect those who are most vulnerable, and avoid the “widespread disruption” seen in places like China and Italy, Polis said in a press conference yesterday morning. 

On the testing front, the goal is that “anybody exhibiting flu-like symptoms can promptly get tested,” Polis said. Currently, the state has about 900 test kits and the CDC is expected to send an additional 1,500 kits this week. Other providers, including Children’s Hospital and UC Health, are currently developing testing capabilities, and healthcare behemoth LabCorp is now offering testing through their physician network (though those tests have a three- to four-day turnaround, compared to the 24-hour turnaround of state tests). 

In another step toward expanded testing, today CDPHE is opening the state’s first drive-up testing center at 8100 E. Lowry Boulevard in Denver for anyone who has a doctor’s note saying they need testing. Additional centers will be announced in the coming days, said Polis, who is “especially prioritizing setting up a testing facility in the high country by the end of this week.”(Currently, there are seven presumed positive cases in Eagle County, 10 in Pitkin, two in Gunnison, and one in Summit County.)

Since testing began on February 28, the state has tested 350 people. Between Tuesday and Wednesday, overnight testing revealed 10 presumptive positive cases, which CDPHE officials believe indicate that limited community spread—meaning a spread of an illness for which the source of infection is unknown—is taking place in Colorado. Polis addressed the potential for community spread in his press conference on Tuesday, saying it was expected “in the coming days,” and will speak more on the subject on Wednesday afternoon. He also warned that the number of confirmed cases is expected to climb as testing expands, while emphasizing that more testing is good. “The more people we test and the sooner we do it, the better chance we have at successful containment,” he said. 

To encourage testing, Polis on Monday instructed Colorado insurers to waive costs and fees associated with testing, an action that applies to state employees as well. And as part of the state of emergency declaration, he directed the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to ensure that folks in food handling, hospitality, childcare, healthcare, and education get paid sick leave to miss work if they exhibit flu-like symptoms and while they wait for test results. CDLE has also been asked to identify “additional supports and wage replacement,” like unemployment insurance, for folks who test positive and don’t have paid leave, Polis added. He requested that the private sector voluntarily offer paid sick leave to those who don’t already have it. 

Polis also announced yesterday that state employees who are quarantined or in isolation will have the opportunity to work from home. If those people become sick and can’t work, they will be able to use paid sick leave. The administration is currently working on paid leave options for state employees who can’t work from home—like prison guards, assisted living staff, and “frontline CDOT workers,” he added.

On top of that, Polis directed the Department of Revenue to temporarily allow Coloradans over the age of 65 to renew their driver’s licenses online to avoid congregation at DMV sites. There is at least one instance of a confirmed coronavirus case who visited a DMV in Douglas County, he said. 

After delivering the wage and DMV orders, which are in effect for 30 days and can be renewed “as long as this public health emergency lasts,” the governor emphasized that Colorado is still open for business, recreation, and tourism, and stressed that the declaration shouldn’t trigger additional “anxiety or panic.”

“We hope that these actions provide reassurance that we are aware of the risk and taking every reasonable step that we can to contain the spread of the virus and protect our most vulnerable,” he said. But he also stressed the importance of individual action. 

“There’s only so much that any government can do,” said Polis. “At the end of the day, the success of our response depends on individual responsibility.” 

A CDPHE representative told 5280 via email on Tuesday night that there are no new or additional precautions Colorado residents should take since the state of emergency declaration, or if they live in counties with presumptive positives. 

Those who are not sick can continue to take the following actions: 

The most vulnerable populations (i.e. people over 60 and those with chronic illnesses) should avoid unnecessary large gatherings, Polis said.  

People exhibiting symptoms of novel coronavirus (fever, coughing, and shortness of breath) who haven’t yet been tested should take the following steps immediately, said Polis: 

In the coming days, Polis said he will also be issuing specific guidance to schools and nursing homes. For the latest and most accurate information on COVID-19 in Colorado, visit the CDPHE website

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