Denver coronavirus press conference

From left to right: Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Interim Executive Director of the Office of Emergency Management Matthew T. Mueller, and Executive Director of the Department of Public Health & Environment Bob McDonald hold a press conference on Denver's response to the novel coronavirus on March 2, 2020.

Denver’s government officials had a simple message for those worried about contracting the coronavirus: use soap and water.

“Everybody has access to those and should be washing their hands frequently throughout the day,” said Bob McDonald, executive director of the Department of Public Health & Environment.

McDonald, Mayor Michael Hancock and Matthew T. Mueller of the Office of Emergency Management held a press conference on Monday afternoon after speaking with Gov. Jared Polis on a conference call. The officials said that the city is taking steps to ensure those people experiencing homelessness have access to the same precautionary measures as other residents.

“We just a few days ago launched our first public health mobile unit and we will be dispersing information off of that mobile unit to those experiencing homelessness and also hand sanitizers,” McDonald said. “We also have mobile restrooms that we can move around where we need them, all to limit the spread.”

Coronaviruses are a family of respiratory illnesses. COVID-19, the technical name for the novel coronavirus, has had widespread impact in China, while the Colorado Department of Health and Environment has called the risk to the state “low.”

On Sunday, The Denver Post reported that a physics convention with an anticipated attendance of 11,000 people from multiple countries was canceled over concerns about the transmission of COVID-19 between attendees and from attendees to the community. Some of the people who planned to attend were already in Denver when they learned of the cancellation.

Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, said that the tourism agency was “taken off guard” when they learned of the cancellation on Saturday evening.

“We are also fielding a lot of calls from our incoming conventions,” he said. “They are mostly concerned just about Denver’s preparedness plan. We have a pretty solid plan in place,” which involves communication with hotels and scheduled convention groups. Ultimately, he added “the conventions have to make their own determinations.”

Hancock said that the city does have the authority to order restrictions in public health emergencies. So far, the six U.S. deaths have occurred in Washington state, and the city of Seattle is preparing to use a motel as a quarantine location. Asked if Denver would contemplate those measures in a bad outbreak, McDonald said yes.

“That authority is there. We’ve used it a dozen times or more,” he said. He cited an individual who recently returned from China who was put under isolation. (The individual did not contract the coronavirus.)

If people chose not to comply with isolation orders, McDonald said that is “unfortunate," but that “we would want to address the barriers that are keeping them from complying.”

Hancock reported that in Colorado, 23 people have been tested for COVID-19. All tests have returned negative, six of whom were Denver residents. There are nine pending tests, three of whom are in Denver.

The city has stationed supplies at Denver International Airport and will make hand sanitizer available at recreation centers. The state will provide a supply of face masks to local governments.

In planning for an outbreak, Mueller said that the city is looking at potential effects on the provision of services to residents.

“We have a list of 33 central functions within the city that are core to what we do to make sure we’re meeting the needs of our citizens,’ he said. Hancock assured residents that there is contingency funding in departmental budgets that he could seek in an emergency.

When asked if he felt the city was overreacting to COVID-19 given other, more common causes of death, Hancock did not believe so.

“I think it's appropriate to ask what are we doing in the event of the presence of the virus and potential spread of the virus,” he said, before returning to the repeated refrain of personal hygiene. “One of the things we find out to help guard against spread is the very basic thing we all tend to have access to: soap and water.”

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