Mike Willis, emergency response

Mike Willis, Director of the Colorado Office of Emergency Management within the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He is in charge of the state's emergency response team working on COVID-19.

Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday, surrounded by a bevy of state officials, said he has activated an emergency team that includes 10 state agencies to step up the state’s response to COVID-19, the latest version of a coronavirus that surfaced in China last year and has now spread to 58 countries, including the United States, with more than 2,800 deaths.

Polis said the state has been monitoring the virus for the past eight weeks, but as of Tuesday there are no confirmed cases. “We have the tools we need to be prepared for that eventuality and the likelihood that there are cases in Colorado identified in the near future,” he said. The coordinated response will be ready for when there are any diagnosed cases.

Since January, according to Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado’s state epidemiologist, 37 people have been tested for the virus. That includes fourteen people tested by the labs at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 15 tests were done by the lab at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Eight individuals are currently awaiting test results, Herlihy said.

While the CDC has recommended testing those who have traveled to China and Italy and who are hospitalized, Colorado is testing a broader group of people, Herlihy said. That includes setting up a “sentinel surveillance network” at facilities around the state to find potential additional cases. That’s to examine specimens that tested negative for the flu and other respiratory illnesses, to double check them for COVID, she explained.

According to Polis, the state lab can process 160 tests per day, although he said he expects that number to increase, given that the state has expanded its parameters for testing beyond just those who traveled to affected countries. That testing is taking place seven days a week, according to Dr. Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

As to the illness itself, Ryan said most cases are mild, and the most at risk are those with chronic health conditions. There’s increased evidence of “community spread,” which are people who have been diagnosed but have no known ties to those who traveled to other countries. That’s part of the reason for stepping up the state’s testing to include people beyond travelers.

Herlihy said that the way COVID spreads is similar to other respiratory diseases. It’s possible, she said, to catch it by touching a surface that has the virus and then touching your face, nose or mouth. Symptoms include a fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Polis said people should employ preventive measures, including handwashing for at least 20 seconds, avoid contact with sick people, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and cover a cough or sneeze with a tissue and then dispose of the tissue. And if sick, stay home and keep children who are sick at home.

The state has more than 650,000 masks on hand for health workers and the sick, but it isn’t recommended for the general public. Polis said companies are scamming Coloradans to buy masks, when they are not proven effective against the virus. One public health expert said the virus is so small that it can penetrate a mask.

Once someone is suspected of exposure, the state is notified by the local provider, and a decision is made on whether to test. That’s done at the state lab and can be completed in 24 hours, Herlihy said.

After that, the decision will be made whether to hospitalize the person or recommend they isolate at home. At that point, the governor, local public health and the press would be notified of the positive case and the state would investigate whether the patient exposed others to the virus.

The Miami Herald reported last month that a man who traveled to China wound up with a $3,270 bill from his insurance provider for being tested. In Colorado, there will be no fee for testing from the state lab, according to Scott Bookman, lab director for the CDPHE.

Colorado’s response team also includes a 19-member expert emergency epidemic response committee that will advise the governor on how he can use executive authority to protect the public. That committee includes people outside of government, such as representatives from the state medical society, the state hospital association and others with critical expertise in health, disease and public safety.

Colorado is currently at a level 2 emergency, which is defined by the state’s Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management as an identified situation or threat that requires coordination with one or more additional state agencies.

However, if additional steps to protect the public and contain an epidemic are needed, and under a declared top-level emergency, Polis said he has a wide range of options, although he didn’t identify them.

Polis said he spoke to Vice-President Mike Pence on Monday to ask for funding for additional lab personnel, epidemiologists, emergency responders and others to expand state capacity, and funding for preparedness grants that are administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as waiver of grant application requirements to cut through red tape.

In the United States, COVID-19 has popped up in 10 states and killed six in Washington state, as of Tuesday morning.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had been updating its website three times a day and holding daily briefings, is no longer updating how many people are being tested, given that information on the virus is now being tightly controlled by the White House.

The CDC website listed 43 cases as of Monday morning; however, NPR and The New York Times reported Tuesday there are now more than 100, including 18 cases in the Seattle area alone and where at least 200 people have been quarantined and schools have been closed.

Polis dodged questions on whether he is satisfied by the federal response to the outbreak.

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