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Colorado Governor Jared Polis remembers exactly how he felt when COVID-19 cases began popping up all over America last February. “It was just a feeling of dread,” he says. “We knew it was only a matter of time until it was here.”
Colorado would go on to register its first official COVID-19 case on March 5, 2020, although it is very likely the virus was circulating in the state much earlier than that. In the year that has passed since, Polis has had the difficult task of finding some middle ground between two bad outcomes: hurting the economy with heavy restrictions or letting a deadly virus spread unchecked.
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The stats reflect just how difficult that nearly impossible balancing act has been. In the past 12 months, some 417,000 Coloradans have tested positive for the disease, while 5,656 people have died from it. At the same time, the state has likely lost more than 100,000 jobs, in large part due to COVID-related regulations.
Despite the negative effects that come from a yearlong pandemic, though, Polis remains optimistic about how Colorado will come out of it. “This past year we’ve been bruised, battered, and shaken to our core,” he said during his State of the State address on February 17. “But nevertheless the state of Colorado remains strong.”
To mark the one-year anniversary since COVID-19 arrived in the Centennial State, we chatted with Polis about how he has viewed his role during the pandemic, the effect the job has had on his own well-being, and the challenges still to come with vaccine distribution.
5280: The consensus from infectious disease experts is that America dropped the ball by not spending more time getting ready for a potential pandemic in early 2020. Looking back, what type of preparation should have happened during those first few months?
Governor Jared Polis: I think the federal response from the United States was later than it should have been. For instance, they should have started scaling up testing earlier, even after the original cases in China. America had a wasted month or two, in that January to February time period, when we could have been scaling up testing to provide to the states and private hospitals.
Obviously, this was also a novel disease, which meant we had and still have very little information about it. How did the limited knowledge affect your decision-making process in the pandemic’s early days?
It’s very frustrating because I am constantly wishing that I had next week’s information today, and next month’s information yesterday. But all I can really do is use the scientific information that we have at any given time to make the best decisions. Wishing that we were more ahead of the curve of knowledge has been an ongoing theme for me throughout the entire crisis. It feels like we are always playing catch up.
So much of your job is about communicating, especially during this time period when you were talking about restrictions and policies we’ve never seen before. I am wondering if the way you felt like you needed to communicate changed over time? Maybe especially as COVID-19 fatigue set in?
I have always felt that it is important to lead with data and be transparent so that the public has the same information that I have, including as close to real-time information as possible. And it has been very important to me from the start to develop trust and make people believe I am a trusted messenger by providing that type of information. I think you might be wondering about the tone of what I say and how alarmist I am at times. While it is about getting the data out, I also have to sort of play the role of coach and encourage the safe behaviors that we know will save lives and reduce the severity and duration of the pandemic. How do I get people to adopt things like mask wearing and social distancing? I tried to give people knowledge of what they should do to prevent the virus and then connect the dots to turn that knowledge into actual behavior.
You mentioned data, but what other strategies did you feel were effective for getting people to change behavior?
I think having stories from people that have been affected by the disease. For example, we’ve had survivors tell their stories. But we’ve tried to elevate other voices beyond mine to help ensure that we are reaching people that are looking for more than just a political messenger. Some people want to hear information from health experts, like Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s epidemiologist. A big thing, though, has been that peer message, featuring survivors and others that have been directly impacted by COVID.
The summertime in Colorado ended up being somewhat normal. COVID was obviously still here and impacting our lives, but we had it relatively under control. I am wondering if there is some way we could have used that time better to prepare for the spike of cases that came in the fall?
Yeah, the summer was a welcome breath of fresh air for folks. You know, my kids and other people’s kids had summer camps and youth sports happened. We did all of that safely without our viral rate going up. Things obviously took a turn for the worse when we had to head indoors. I think we did work behind that scenes during that time to build up our testing capacity. If you look at our November surge, we had more than enough testing ready for that. We could have done hundreds of thousands of tests a day. We also scaled contact tracing, and we continued to encourage people to make the right choices. That happened not just through the press conferences I did, but also through paid advertising campaigns.
But there is nothing extra you feel like you could’ve done during that time period?
Well, I mean, there weren’t any vaccines yet. And all we could do was scale the testing up and get ready for the next wave. While we had a very deadly second wave, I think one of the reasons it wasn’t as deadly as in other states that had a second wave a little bit after us, like California, was because we were able to scale up the testing rapidly.
This summer—even as the pandemic was raging—we also saw the protests against racial injustice and major wildfires. How did you think about balancing your time between COVID-19 and other major issues?
Yeah, in any other year, the three largest wildfires in the state’s history would have been far and away the lead story. Even one of the largest wildfires in the state’s history would have been the largest story. Certainly, COVID has been an exercise in crisis management and given how large it looms over our lives and economy, it required an enormous amount of time. But I think it’s important that it hasn’t gotten in the way of our focus on making Colorado better and more livable. We were thrilled that in the midst of COVID, my universal preschool initiative passed with 67 percent support at the ballot box. We were still able to open a new state park, Fishers Peak, in Trinidad. There is a lot of work that has continued as far as improving the quality of life in Colorado. We also need to embrace some opportunities that come from the post-pandemic new normal. What does the world look like when more people telecommute? What are the options for people to get driver’s licenses and other state services online? The pandemic was a brutal year for people. We all lost loved ones, and lived in fear, and it hurt the economy. But there’s also innovation that came out of it. And we need to lock in the benefits of that innovation going forward.
During the fall, you seemed like you were more tired and exacerbated by the disease. Certainly, that was around when you and your partner both tested positive for COVID-19. I am wondering how all of this affected you personally? Were there days when the prolonged nature of things got to you?
I have been literally tired many days. I have calls from early in the morning until midnight many nights. It is not unusual for me and my chief of staff to be going over things at 11 p.m. So, yes, it is literally exhausting. And then also like many Colorado families, I have two kids at home. When my partner was in the hospital, I was the sole caretaker for our two kids while I also had COVID. So, all those normal life things that are stressful for most Coloradans have impacted me as well.
There are many Coloradans who really don’t like how you have handled COVID-19. How do you think about the criticism you get? And how important do you think it is to try to convince them of your positions?
You’ve got the people that are flat Earthers and COVID deniers, but that is a really small minority of Coloradans. I think most people in the state understand COVID, especially since so many people have lost loved ones. There’s always people that want to believe in something different than reality. I think it’s a minimal number of people, but they certainly are loud.
So, are you just telling yourself you need to stick to the facts and not worry about that type of criticism?
It’s not about convincing the relatively few people who just don’t live in reality. There are people that are taking precautions and know what is going on. Then there are some folks in the middle that know there’s a risk but are just kind of tired of all of this. Aren’t we all? And I think a lot about how we message to that group in the middle. They are really the focus for me.
There was a recent report from the Denver Post that said Colorado has paid a heavier economic price throughout the pandemic than some other states…
Yes, two Colorado sectors have been particularly hard hit: tourism and oil and gas. These are large parts of the economy. All of our hotels have been open during this time but business hasn’t been what it usually is. We’re seeing less tourists in their 60s and 70s, who are some of the biggest spenders. I think tourism will come back strong, though, especially because in Colorado a lot of our tourism is based around outdoor recreation, which is safer.
Yeah…but I am wondering if you can shed some light on how you thought about balancing those economic ramifications with the need to keep people safe, especially during November and December when cases really peaked?
Yeah, that was really our hardest and most deadly time. It was so important during that time period to really send a message that gathering with people outside of your household is simply unsafe. I have said throughout this that most of our ability to control COVID has to do with people’s behavior. Maybe 20 percent of the spread is what policies we have, while 80 percent is what behavioral choices people decide to make. I have always tried to focus my remarks on giving the best advice possible, using the best science possible.
What are some of the biggest challenges that still need to be figured out with regards to vaccine distribution?
I think a big thing we are worried about is those that are vaccine hesitant. I don’t think we need to convert anti-vaxxers to reach herd immunity. But there is a group that is more hesitant. These are people that have gotten other vaccinations and their kids have gotten other vaccinations, but they aren’t eager to do it now. They are worried about it. They have anxiety about it. So, how do you address that? With the data about safety and efficacy that hopefully increases their comfort level. And then obviously, the other big frustration is simply quantity. People that are eligible are frustrated that they can’t get it immediately. But it’s simple math. If we get 90,000 doses a week, and 580,000 people are in the eligible group, that means it is going to take six to eight weeks to get it to everyone in that group. I know how frustrating that is. But I don’t know how else to communicate that other than giving people the numbers.
The one thing not related to COVID that I was wondering about is your reelection campaign. Have you thought about 2022 and who you might be running against?
Well, the country just had a doozy of an election. So, I think before anybody wants to start thinking about the next election, we really need a national healing. I’m confident President Biden will do his best to bring people together. I’m hoping that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents can sort of heal the discourse and agree that it’s OK to disagree. We can do things without being disagreeable, and have an honest and open debate about the best policies for the American people.