Gov. Jared Polis

Gov. Jared Polis reiterated his desire Friday for local authorities, not the state, to institute masking and other public responses to the worsening pandemic.

Gov. Jared Polis continued to show no interest in instituting a statewide mask order Friday, days after much of the metro area and public health officials across the state asked him to do so.

Describing mask wearing as the "neighborly thing to do," Polis stuck to his go-to answer when asked about face-covering orders in the past few weeks: Vaccinations are the way forward and the way out of this crisis, and "local decision-makers" are the appropriate people to guide their area's pandemic response. 

He noted that the bulk of the state — more than 80% — has been at least partially vaccinated and that for them, the risk from the pandemic is significantly less than it was a year ago. Their patience for tolerating mask orders and other changes to their every day life, he continued, "is rightfully wearing thin."

"Is it more risk than life was in 2017 or 2018? Yeah, it's higher risk, even if you're vaccinated," he said at a press conference Friday. "But it's not so far outside the bounds of normal risk that informed Coloradans should have the right to take that it would call for any additional steps that would in any way (infringe) on people's freedom to make these decisions for themselves."

Polis said the decision to get vaccinated comes down to individual choice, though he pushed for a vaccine requirement for health care workers statewide and has directed state employees to either get inoculated or face regular testing.

"Our hospitals are full of people who are unvaccinated," he said. "It's a matter of personal responsibility — of course, until it gets to the point that it affects everybody else, and it's right on that border right now."

As for local control, most local public health officials have now called on the governor to institute a statewide order, the Colorado Association of Public Health Officials told the governor in a letter last week. In the metro, where nearly every county asked for not only masks but also vaccine passports, officials have stressed that a patchwork system of orders — even if implemented uniformly across most of this region — is not enough. 

Asked if he bears any responsibility for the current crisis, Polis sidestepped, instead listing the state's relatively strong position, in terms of mortality, compared to the rest of the country and how Colorado's current surge is not as bad as other states' recent spikes. 

He harkened back to the early days of the pandemic, when the state was short on everything from COVID-19 tests to hospital gowns. While those pressures have been lifted, the stress upon hospitals is greater than it's ever been. Though only 20% of the state's hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, a staffing crisis driven by burnout and an increase in trauma and routine medical issues is stretching facilities.

Hospitals "normally run at 75%, 80% capacity," he said. "On top of the normal load, you add 20%, suddenly you're close to 100%." 

The state "is facing one of the toughest waves that we have since the pandemic began," the governor said, and he reiterated the steps he's taken: surging hospital beds, pushing for health care workforce relief and loosening staffing regulations for hospitals.

As far as how the average Coloradan can respond, Polis's emphasis remains on pharmaceutical interventions: monoclonal antibodies for newly symptomatic, high-risk patients; boosters for those who were vaccinated months ago; and doses for the roughly 20% of residents who haven't been inoculated. 

Polis and other state and local officials have grown increasingly frustrated with the present situation, calling it a "pandemic of the unvaccinated" and lamenting that those people's decisions are helping to push hospitals to the brink. Eighty-two percent of the state's COVID-19 hospitalizations, for instance, are unvaccinated, and those residents are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 13 times more likely to die from the virus, according to recent state data.

But on Friday, the governor struck a more conciliatory tone. He called masking and vaccinations "the decent thing to do." He asked vaccinated residents, themselves potentially frustrated by the state of affairs, to be civil with their un-inoculated friends and family. Patient, research-informed dialogue, he said, can "break the hold that false information has on many Coloradans." 

The present moment "is a very divided time," he continued. County leaders who don't institute mask orders or other mitigation efforts don't "want to kill anybody, it doesn't mean they want anybody to die." On the other hand, leaders who do press on with measures intended to stop growth "are not trying to restrict your freedom, they're not issuing that order with any joy."