In early April, Gov. Jared Polis's public optimism neared its apex.
After a winter spent fighting an unprecedented COVID-19 surge, cases were falling, mortality had plummeted, vaccines were flowing and a Colorado summer beckoned. Four months before, the governor had giddily greeted a FedEx truck delivering the first batch of doses to Colorado. He was so visibly excited as the truck pulled up that Jimmy Fallon replayed the clip on "The Tonight Show."
With supply robust enough that vaccines would soon be available to every adult in the state, Polis told reporters at an April 9 press conference: "We're almost back to normal."
More than seven months later, Colorado is far from almost back to normal. It's backslid nearly to winter 2020 and is steadily approaching its worst moment in the pandemic. Hospitals have fewer beds available now than at any other point, the state's positivity rate is nearly 10%, and flu season — a great unknown that may sent hundreds of patients into hospitals — is arriving. The virus has roared back into the state, fueled by the more transmissible delta variant and pockets of unvaccinated Coloradans.
And like hospitalizations, criticism leveled at the governor's handling of the pandemic, particularly from his party mates, is surging.
One thing is clear: Nobody can predict the swings and surges of the virus. The more than half-dozen public health experts who spoke to The Gazette for this story said it's impossible to anticipate how the virus will act. All of them, along with Polis and his team, have been shocked by Colorado's recent descent, given the broad availability of the vaccine and the state of the pandemic six months ago.
But this latest crisis did not happen overnight. Cases began to rise again in mid-July, before picking up steam in August. There were brief plateaus in September and October, but never a true decline, and hospitalizations have significantly worsened over the past month.
As Polis took steps to protect hospital capacity but eschewed most measures that experts say can blunt transmission, public health officials began to plead with him to act more aggressively. Nearly every health department in the metro area asked him last week to institute a mask order and vaccine passport system. Many of their peers across the state have also urged him to issue a face-covering order.
But again on Friday, he continued to indicate he's not considering a mask order. He said vaccinated Coloradans' patience for masks and other behavioral changes is "wearing thin." Asked if he bears any responsibility for the current surge, he dodged and instead listed the steps he's taken to alleviate hospitals and pointed to the state's stronger position than that of other surging states.
The COVID-19 Rubicon
Polis faces immense political pressure not just from local public heath agencies but also from his progressive flank. And he's found his strongest support from conservatives over his refusal, for now, to reimpose the strict measures he adopted earlier this year to combat the pandemic.
In doing so, Polis straddles some kind of middle ground between the actions of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, who signed a law banning public schools from imposing a mask mandate, and Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, who champions an indoor mask requirement, even for vaccinated individuals.
Undoubtedly, the criticism from his party is getting louder.
“I’m really disappointed in the governor’s response,” former state Rep. Joe Salazar, who is calling for mask mandates, told Colorado Politics.
Salazar said he’s frustrated the governor saw the situation deteriorating and acted “too little, too late,” referring to Polis’ latest executive orders to protect hospital capacity and require full vaccination for large gatherings.
Polis could have prevented the state from crossing the COVID-19 “Rubicon,” he said.
The state Department of Public Health and Environment's requirement that only individuals who are fully vaccinated may attend large, “unseated” events in the metro didn’t escape Salazar’s ire. He said he sees no logic there.
“This virus doesn’t give a damn whether you are standing or sitting," Salazar said. “I don’t think it’s going to distinguish between who wants to sit down or stand up.”
Public health leaders in and around the Denver area said the order is a step in the right direction. But it's not enough, they said: The state needs vaccine passports applied to bars, restaurants and gyms, too.
Mark Johnson, the president of the Colorado Medical Society, said the state has repeatedly opened up too soon, leaving itself vulnerable to surges and mini-surges throughout the pandemic. That's especially true looking back to the spring, he said, and action needs to be taken.
"Whatever needs to be done to improve the vaccination rate and to get mask mandates, it’s worth it," he said. "I quit trying to predict what the governor’s going to do about 20 months ago. I don't know what he’s going to do. I have wished that he would leave it to the scientists many times, but he is who he is, and he has a lot of power in the state."
'Truly in a crisis'
Using hindsight to judge what should and shouldn't have been done amid a completely foreign event - a new virus washing over the entire world and killing 769,000 Americans - is not a fair exercise, experts said. Even now, nearly two years into the crisis, researchers still don't know why the virus peaks when it does. They don't know why Colorado, with a high vaccination rate, started to see its cases rise in July and is still seeing them rise four months later. They don't know why the virus recedes, or when it will this time.
"Anybody who thinks they can predict COVID with any accuracy," said Bill Burman, the director of the Denver Health Institute of Public Health, "is either a genius or delusional."
Quoting another public health expert, Lisa Miller, an epidemiologist and associate dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, referred to it as a muddy crystal ball. Experts want certainty and answers, she said, especially from the scientific community.
"But we also have to be honest about the limits of what we know about this still very new virus," she said. "And, I think in hindsight, when you ask what we might’ve done in the past is maybe to have been a little more circumspect about what might happen or the fact that we need to be ready to change what we’re doing."
That means, she continued, warning people that things may change abruptly and those abrupt changes, in turn, may require a policy response. Miller would "love" a response now, she said. As to what it would be — she's leaving that up to Polis.
"What we really need, right now, is some sort of intervention — whether that’s communication or policy or social pressure or whatever — that dramatically reduces the spread of infections in Colorado for three to four weeks or gets us through the holiday season," added Beth Carlton, also of the public health school. "What is the intervention that is going to move the needle?"
Neither Carlton nor Miller called on Polis to implement a certain policy, and both expressed sympathy with his position. But their peers in local public health agencies are increasingly becoming more forthright with what they want the governor to do. On Friday, the Metro Denver Partnership for Health, a coalition of officials from Denver, Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder and Broomfield counties, wrote to Polis asking him to require masks, vaccine passports and vaccine mandates for more workers. On Thursday, the Jefferson County Board of Health wrote Polis to "respectfully seek your leadership" in ordering face coverings be worn.
"Trends are going in the wrong direction," the board wrote, "and we implore you to take additional mitigation steps immediately before anyone else loses their life unnecessarily."
Burman said the coalition has become increasingly worried over the past two months. Intensive care and acute care bed capacity have both run well over 90% for weeks. Fewer than 100 ICU beds are routinely available in Colorado, and, as of Friday morning, there were fewer than 600 acute-care beds left, too.
In July, when cases first started to increase, Polis was asked about re-imposing public health orders. He wasn't interested: "I've made it clear from the state: The state nexus is making sure our hospital system is not overwhelmed."
Polis and his team now acknowledge that capacity is threatened in a way it never has been before. Still, his actions so far have revolved almost entirely around warding off that specific threat and not necessarily focused on preventing transmission: surging more beds, stepping treatment administration to keep sick people out of the hospital, bringing in more staff, pushing booster doses to the vaccinated.
Thus far, those steps haven't reversed the crisis.
"With each passing week, it felt to us like we were losing time," John Douglas, the executive director of Tri-County Health, said. Had Colorado instituted a mask order earlier, "I think it probably would've made a difference."
The metro's health departments met with the state Department of Public Health and Environment twice to ask them to institute health orders. Nothing came out of those conversations, and with the twin accelerants of the holidays and flu season approaching, the group feels the need for intervention growing.
"We want to make it clear that we see this as a crisis," Burman said. "It’s a crisis right now. And this crisis could easily worsen in the next few weeks and couple of months. The public needs to hear that at least this group of public health leaders think we’re truly in a crisis."
'Virus … with us forever'
While the political left hammers Polis, the conservative right endorses his approach.
“The governor has done fairly well in terms of handling the pandemic,” Jesse Mallory, state director for Americans for Prosperity, said.
He prefers that strategy, Mallory said, because local governments respond to crisis situations best. In addition, residents have a better chance of approaching and persuading local leaders than state officials.
“I can go plea to my local county government,” he said.
The problem with government expanding its powers, he argued, is that it is “extremely reluctant” to pull them back.
Ultimately, he said, Colorado residents must learn to live with the virus — because it is not going away. That means having the health infrastructure to manage the pandemic on a long-term basis and allowing the economy to operate.
Striking that balance, putting in restrictions where they make sense while allowing society to go back to some normal, is best decided at the local level, he said.
Lora Thomas, a commissioner in Douglas County, traced Polis’ approach to the realization that society cannot thrive under long-term aggressive interventions governing people’s behavior in the face of a pandemic that is here to stay.
“This virus is going to be with us forever. We need to learn to live with it. And it appears that the governor is realizing that,” she told Colorado Politics.
Like Mallory, Thomas argued for local control in dealing with the crisis.
Thomas said the “elephant in the room” is that the governor faces re-election next year and he is “realizing the citizens are tired of government overreach.”
But the problem with local control now, officials in the metro area said, is that Colorado's counties are not siloed. People move around the state, and the health system is an interconnected web statewide: When one strand snaps, the weight grows heavier for the rest.
"A localized face-covering order in Denver is not going to solve a statewide issue," said Bob McDonald, the executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. "It might drive down cases in Denver, but unless something is done statewide, Denver hospitals will just take more patients external to Denver. These need to be done consistently throughout the state."
Mallory and others countered this risk always exists in a global community, where people routinely travel in and out of communities, but that it shouldn't mean taking away local control.
'A very different Jared Polis'
Nationwide, discussions about how to respond to the pandemic have become as political as they are scientific. Colorado is not immune to that trend. Johnson, of the Colorado Medical Society, ticked off three things that would help: Masks, vaccines and testing. Politics has warped any discussion of at least two of those, masks and vaccines.
"Just to state the obvious, there doesn’t seem to be much political will at the state level or at the local level to implement mask mandates," Jon Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said earlier this month. "It’s unfortunate that a basic public health tool has become so challenging to use, I think in large part because of politics."
Several experts, including the public health school's Miller and Carlton, said they don't envy Polis. None could predict what he would do, let alone what the virus would do, they said, adding once public health orders have been lifted, it's hard to reimpose them on an exhausted populace.
Democrat Trisha Zornio, a scientist who briefly ran in the U.S. Senate primary last year (she withdrew from the race), said the “growing discontent” in the governor’s handling of the pandemic emanates from witnessing two versions of Polis — the hands-on governor from earlier this year and the hands-off one of recent weeks.
“Early on we saw a very different Jared Polis in the way he managed and acted in those very challenging times,” said Zornio, a columnist for the Colorado Sun and Colorado Newsline.
While the early Polis was swift to act, “we are seeing some very sharp shifts” in the latest Polis incarnation, she said.
The frustration, she said, grew out of the fact that scientists and policymakers now know more about the virus than before. That knowledge includes the efficacy of masks and vaccines, and how to change people’s behaviors to prevent the kind of surge Colorado sees today, she said.
“We actually do know how to curb cases and keep them down,” she said, adding her impression is that Polis is unwilling to deploy all the tools available in his toolbox.
Zornio, like Salazar, wants to see a statewide vaccine mandate where social distancing isn’t possible – from restaurants to big concerns. Salazar also wants more vaccine passports, particularly in areas where the courts have already permitted them.
“We know masks work. He knows masks work because he wears them,” she said. “If he doesn’t think they work, he wouldn’t wear one.”
Polis has pointed to New Mexico, a neighboring state with a mask order and surging cases, as evidence that face-coverings are not a cure-all. A spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Health said in an email this week that "the science is unequivocal: when high-quality masks are worn correctly, they are incredibly effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19. Without a mask mandate, New Mexico would have more cases."
Douglas, of Tri-County Health, and Jennifer Tolbert, the director of state health reform for the Kaiser Family Foundation, balk at comparing one state to another, even if their policies match up. Too many complicating factors, too many unknowns, too many nuances in policies and approaches exist, they said.
What's unequivocal across states, Tolbert emphasized, is the efficacy of vaccinations in slowing spread, hospitalizations and deaths. She praised Polis's push to require vaccines for health care and state workers, and Denver's move to inoculate a broad swath of the workforce here. Those efforts should be intensified, she and others said.
Zornio dismissed Polis’ reasons for not imposing a statewide mask mandate – that the current crisis is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. While it’s true most hospitalizations occur among the unvaccinated, she said, the surge affects a lot more people than those who refused to get the vaccine.
“We are taking about impacts to healthcare systems and healthcare workers,” she said, adding the effects also extend to private and public entities that have had to shutter because of staffing issues, not to mention the limited number of immuno-compromised residents who cannot be vaccinated.
“It’s not fair to say (the surge) only impacts the unvaccinated,” she said.
Strategist: Polis can antagonize the left
Two political strategists, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely express their views, don’t see Polis bowing to political pressure.
One veteran lobbyist said the governor's approach – resisting calls to reimpose aggressive government interventions, allowing local governments to manage cases – merely reflects his philosophy.
“It’s where he is politically,” the source said. The political observer speculated that Polis' resistance applies to pressure from all points of the political spectrum - whether folks are from the left, right or those in between.
Instead, the source said Polis pivoted to “individual responsibility” because he is a “very progressive libertarian,” adding the governor sees the latest surge as an occasion to “ask people to do the right for themselves and get vaccinated.”
“He sincerely sees a meaningful role for an appropriately limited government,” the source said.
Another longtime political observer noted the governor already gave up his emergency powers, and it would be politically difficult for him to redeploy them.
The two strategists also don’t see the current COVID-19 surge hampering the governor’s agenda in the legislature next year.
“He’s been so disciplined and so few legislators are willing to pick those fights,” the first source said.
The second source said Polis can afford to antagonize his left flank - or any other flank.
“He can simply fund his own campaign,” the source said.
'I've put my back into it'
On April 9, Polis told the state it was nearly back to normal. He wasn't alone in expressing that optimism, and for a few months, he looked to be right. Then cases began to rise, and they haven't stopped since.
On Nov. 12, he took the lectern at another press conference and said the state is at a "critical moment." After urging vaccinations and walking through the state's numbers, Polis was asked if there was anything he or the state could've done differently, several weeks ago, to avoid this critical moment. He wished the vaccination rate would've been higher, and that more people had chosen to get inoculated, he said.
"I feel I've put my back into it and what I can do to get people vaccinated," he said. "If Colorado had been at 90% instead of 80% (partially vaccinated), six or eight weeks ago, we simply wouldn't be facing anything like what we're facing today."