Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced at a coronavirus briefing Friday that all essential employees will be mandated to wear face masks while working, along with other updates regarding the state's response to the pandemic.

The Colorado National Guard will be sent into three of the largest nursing homes in the state to conduct testing as part of a stepped up effort to protect those who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus, Gov. Jared Polis said Friday.

"We really need even better planning, better protections to stop the spread of the virus in these facilities, particularly as the stay-at-home order and these severe restrictions in place roll off, we need to really up our game in practice in all the senior care facilities across our state," Polis said.

Outbreaks of the deadly, flu-like disease have been identified at 100 facilities throughout the state, according to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. 

At least 10 of those are in Colorado Springs, where the deaths of 13 residents at long-term care facilities have been confirmed as coronavirus and another five are suspected.

According to the state health department's data, at least 138 patients at nonhospital health care facilities have died after testing positive for the coronavirus Wednesday. More than 520 patients have tested positive for the disease.

Colorado began restricting visitations and implementing screenings to senior facilities last month. 

"I think the toll would be far worse had that not been put in place," Polis said. "But that's not an excuse that we shouldn't be doing more ... We find that compliance is good in some places and spotty in others.

Long-term care facilities are potentially the most worrisome because those over 65 are the most susceptible to the disease and most at risk of dying from it, along with anyone with an underlying health issue or a compromised immune system.

All senior long-term care facilities will be required to submit a detailed isolation plan to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by May 1, Polis said at his daily briefing on the state's response to the pandemic.

"We're also going to be a lot more focused on compliance and enforcement" at nonhospital senior care facilities," he said. "The protocols that we're putting in place are really about providing additional education and training to staff to keep the facility safe."

Those include temperature readings, wrist bands that mark approval for entrance and a short questionnaire about symptoms, the governor said.

"This is demonstrated to be effective," Polis said. "Most senior care facilities should be doing something almost like this already."

Polis said he recently talked with Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, where a nursing home was tied to 40 coronavirus deaths, about how Colorado can "step up" to protect its seniors. 

Health department data shows the infection rate is higher in people ages 30 to 59, but the most deaths are among those 80 or older.

Through Friday, 391 Coloradans had died of the virus, based on counties' reporting to the state.

According to the state's data, at least 203 people who previously tested positive for the coronavirus have returned home or were transferred to lower level care since Thursday. The state began tracking daily hospital discharges and transfers on Sunday.

The state will be providing 200 isolation beds in early May at supplemental facilities that will be available to seniors if their own facilities don't have room for people who are symptomatic, the governor said. The first round of beds will be at St. Anthony's North in Westminster, one of five alternate care sites set up in case of a surge in coronavirus patients across Colorado.

Other developments announced at the briefing included a new executive order that requires essential workers — such as senior facility and grocery employees — to wear face masks when on the job. They can be medical or nonmedical, the governor said. 

"Most employers and workers are already doing this and we salute them for their proactive steps, but we don't want to prolong the pain for everybody else just because some aren't," Polis said. Only those employees with breathing issues are exempt from the order, he said.

"It will save lives. That life could be a loved one, it could be yours ..." he said. "A culture of wearing masks allows us to have a greater degree of economic activity, of growth. ... It's incredibly important in particular in our senior care facilities and for our most vulnerable. Their lives are quite literally on the line."

In other news Friday:

• Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said he expects an announcement from Polis next week on when retail stores across Colorado may be allowed to reopen, adding it could be as soon as April 27. Suthers does not expect bars and restaurants to be allowed to open at the same time as retail stores, he told the Colorado Springs City Council in a Friday afternoon briefing.

When the governor announces the phased approach to reopening everyday activities, the city is likely to start allowing some employees who had been working from home to return to city facilities, he said. All returning city employees will be required to wear masks on the job, he said.

"We are going to begin a very slow gradual phase-in process of our own," Suthers said.

• Beginning Monday, gig workers and independent contractors who lost work due to COVID-19 can begin to apply for unemployment benefits, Polis said.

• Friday, the governor refuted a statement made by the state's incident commander Thursday saying that the state wouldn't open until it had the capacity to make everyone safe. 

"That's not true ..." Polis said. "If any state, if any country, were to wait until we could keep everybody safe we would have to be closed forever."

He added that the social distancing measures over the next few months will help Coloradans live with the virus around "in a sustainable way."

• The governor addressed recently released racial data regarding the coronavirus, and said the state is launching a task force to address "all of the inequities in this COVID-19 crisis."

• The state has made the first round of grants in coronavirus relief funds, Polis said.

Colorado received $21 million in grant applications, Polis said. He added that $4.8 million is "going out immediately" to more than 200 organizations in 62 Colorado counties that applied for it.

The money will go toward front-line workers impacted by the virus and school or child care closures, service economy workers, older Coloradans whose income is jeopardized, homeless populations, immigrant and refugee communities, tribal governments and others, Polis said.

The Gazette's Mary Shinn contributed to this report.

Contact Liz Henderson, 719-476-1623

Twitter: @GazetteLiz

Multimedia Journalist

Liz is a multimedia journalist who joined the Gazette staff in 2019.

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