Gov. Jared Polis

In this file photo, Gov. Jared Polis reiterates his desire for local authorities, not the state, to institute masking and other public responses to the worsening pandemic.

Gov. Jared Polis on Friday walked back comments he made in an interview with Colorado Public Radio, in which he said it isn't public health officials' job to require wearing a mask.

In a statement issued hours after the transcript of the interview was published, Polis's office said the governor meant it's not the role of statewide officials to impose face coverings, but that he supports local leaders' public health decisions.

Polis, who instituted a mask order statewide for the first half of the pandemic, has for weeks opposed imposing another one amid surges in cases.

In a Thursday interview with CPR's Ryan Warner, he reiterated that position and went further: He said that "public health [officials] don’t get to tell people what to wear; that's just not their job."

The governor's comments stood in stark contrast not only to his own previous positions on face-coverings but also to what several metro area counties - including Denver - did late last month. 

Masks are "not something that you require; you don't tell people what to wear," he told Warner. "You don't tell people to wear a jacket when they go out in winter and force them to [wear it]. If they get frostbite, it's their own darn fault."

In a statement on Friday, his office walked back the comments and said the governor meant "it is not the role of the state public health department to tell people what to wear. He wanted to be clear that he was referring to the state role because that word was not formally included in the remarks and wasn’t clear enough from the context." 

His office added: "Of course, he believes that local leaders can and should put disease reduction protocols in place based off their disease levels and community support for those policies." 

Most metro counties instituted indoor mask requirements in the days before Thanksgiving. The agencies' leaders asked Polis publicly to issue such a mandate statewide. When the governor maintained it is the counties' job to enact such orders, metro leaders imposed the requirements.

Polis also told Warner that the "emergency is over," a position he's held since the summer, when vaccinations flowed and hospitalizations had plummeted. Since then, however, hospitals have experienced major surges in cases. COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked in November and have dropped since. Still, hospitalizations from pandemic-related problems continue to strain hospitals.

The more dominant crises facing hospitals are driven by staffing shortages, primarily because of burnout, and an unprecedented spike in sicker patients who delayed care through the first several months of the pandemic. Conditions that may have been caught earlier or treated steadily have now spiraled, requiring longer hospital stays, higher levels of care and further stretching of resources and staff.

Polis again echoed what he's said repeatedly: If a person who is unvaccinated is hospitalized with COVID-19, he or she has only himself or herself to blame.

"If you haven't been vaccinated, that's your choice," he told CPR. "I respect that. But it's your fault when you're in the hospital with COVID."

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