At long last, testing for coronavirus is ramping up across Colorado, after months of lockdowns, face masks and a rising death toll.
In a matter of 10 days, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis rolled out a free, drive-up testing facility at the Pepsi Center in Denver on Thursday afternoon in partnership with Denver Health Medical Center.
Hancock was one of the first people officially tested Wednesday at the new location — the largest testing site in the state — where the city hopes to test at least 500 people a day, with room to expand to 1,000 if demand calls for it.
The city currently has the capacity to conduct up to 4,000 tests a day, the mayor said.
Denver is spending about $3.5 million for the Pepsi Center site, Hancock said, part of a $5 million public health and safety investment. The funding is part of the city’s first deployment of $20 million from the $126.8 million the city received in federal stimulus money.
"Great job, Denver," Polis said Thursday, before instructing the public, "If you're ill, get tested. You owe it to yourself and especially those around you to know whether you have a cold or whether you have COVID-19, so we can take the steps to make sure and protect the lives of those who are closest to you."
He added that it's "easy to get tested," in less than 15 or 20 minutes. People rub a Q-Tip up their own noses.
Polis and Hancock had agreed to focus on “quick, easy, free” messaging prior to the press conference while touring the testing site together. The tour was led by Greggory LaBerge, director of the Denver Police Crime Laboratory, who is leading operations at the testing site.
As Polis returned his mask over his face, Hancock thanked him for his leadership. "You are the right leader at the right time for Colorado," the mayor said.
The Pepsi Center site will begin testing Friday at 8 a.m. and allow people to get in line until 4 p.m. every day, including weekends, but not on holidays, meaning no tests will be provided Monday, on Memorial Day.
Polis on Thursday announced a partnership with Colorado State University to test asymptomatic workers and residents at 30 nursing facilities to reduce the spread to older residents, to whom the illness is most likely to be deadly, as well as to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
"We can help keep it out of areas that have extremely high hospitalization and death rates," Polis said.
He urged caution over the three-day weekend.
"We're still at the point where we really hope that as many Coloradans as possible enjoy this Memorial Day weekend in groups of 10 or less," the governor said.
Polis told reporters that 1 in 300 Coloradans are currently contagious with coronavirus, although he did not indicate from where he derived that figure. He said if cases surge high again, it would be a setback to public safety and the economy.
Murphy Robinson, the city's newly appointed public safety director, said access to testing is critical to recovery.
He urged anyone planning to get tested to register on the city's coronavirus website, which can be reached by clicking here. People don't need a doctor's order nor to be part of a high-risk group to be tested. The tests aren't for those who think they have had coronavirus in the past, however.
To receive a test, residents should bring a document that verifies their name, such as a photo ID, bus pass, school ID, utility bill or library card. Hancock stressed that no questions concerning citizenship will be asked.
Results will be available online in three days.
"There are no appointments necessary, so people can register on the city website and come down to the Pepsi Center at their convenience," Robinson said.
Anyone who needs assistance to be tested can call 311 for help. Walking or biking up to the site is discouraged, as testing is primarily intended for symptomatic people only.
He added, "As to what's next, it's to be determined."
Testing is at the heart of the nation's effort to isolate those who are sick to allow other Americans to get back to work, Isolating those who are sick from those who aren't is vital to stemming the spread of the illness, health experts contend.
An attempt at drive-up testing at the Denver Coliseum in mid-March was quickly overwhelmed and soon shelved.
Polis said the technology has since improved to apply the swab. The new testing is easier and faster.
He said the previous site was the one of the first in the country and the only one in the state.
"We are excited that we've made it free, easy and quick for everybody," Polis said.
Colorado's efforts to expand testing has been thwarted by not having enough testing supplies — from the strategic national stockpile and from public and private efforts locally — to take on the monumental task.
A list of nearly three dozen community testing sites across the state is available by clicking here.
As of Wednesday, 1001 Coloradans had died from COVID-19 from 22,797 confirmed cases, resulting in 3,990 hospitalizations.
The city and county of Denver has endured 4,858 confirmed cases and 294 deaths.
So far, in a state of 5.8 million people, just 135,611 people have been tested, or roughly 2.3%, far below the goal of 10,000 tests a day set by the governor.
Polis announced on Monday that anyone who is symptomatic for the virus could now be tested for free, as he began to consider re-opening restaurants for dine-in customers.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, last week warned those moving too quickly to reopen their states to risky behavior.
“If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines ... then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country,” Fauci wrote in a statement to the New York Times. “This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”
Wednesday Polis signed an executive order establishing alternative care sites, in the case of a resurgence that's more than hospitals can care for, by moving those who are recovering or less sick to off-site facilities.
"My administration, along with other state, local, and federal authorities, has undertaken a wide array of actions to respond to and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, prevent further spread, preserve our health care resources, and provide needed flexibility to address the collateral consequences of the pandemic," the governor's order states.
Colorado public health officials continue to stress that only people who have symptoms should seek a test. Those symptoms include fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, muscle pain, chills or the loss of taste or smell.
The state health department recommends considering free telehealth services, as well. You can find a list of those phone lines by clicking here.