Gov. Jared Polis

Gov. Jared Polis said Friday that he backs President Joe Biden’s vaccine-or-testing mandate on large businesses, comparing it to protocols he implemented over the course of the summer for state workers in Colorado.

Biden’s plan, unveiled Thursday, requires vaccination for federal workers and contractors and either vaccination or regular testing for private sector workers at businesses meeting a 100-worker threshold.

Polis in mid-August asked the state Board of Health to engage in “expedited rulemaking" to require health care workers, including staff in long-term care facilities, be vaccinated against COVID-19. He also announced that staff working in state-run facilities who interface with those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 must be inoculated by the end of September, while other state workers who are unvaccinated must wear a mask at work and submit to regular testing.

“The president's actions are in some ways similar to what Colorado did a few weeks before,” Polis said. “We, as an employer, are implementing that for ourselves, just as employers of all sizes are.”

But while the governor was broadly supportive of Biden’s move, he said he didn’t yet have details from the federal government on how the president’s plan would be implemented.

“This is a very normal way of doing things,” he said. “The announcement is made and that starts the process of how they can receive input and actually do the fine print on how all these rules are implemented.”

Polis’ support for the measure comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations are surging and hospital capacity is shrinking in the state. According to Scott Bookman, the COVID-19 incident commander at the state Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado as of Friday stood at 902 COVID-19 hospitalizations, with roughly 80% of those cases stemming from unvaccinated individuals.

“That represents the second highest amount of COVID hospitalizations at any point in this pandemic,” he said. “It has now eclipsed the first wave that we saw in the spring of 2020.”

That isn’t technically true, as the state COVID-19 dashboard shows hospitalizations in the lead-up and aftermath of the December 2020 peak eclipsed current rates. The current rate does represent the second-highest peak of hospitalizations, COVID and otherwise, during the pandemic.

According to Bookman, the difference between the current surge and past waves is vaccinations.

“Those who have been vaccinated have been given the opportunity to go out and live their lives,” he said. “What comes with that is additional cases of trauma, additional heart attacks, additional strokes. We have seen people who have delayed receiving care over the course of the pandemic because they were afraid to go to their doctor.”

The surge in hospitalizations also comes with fewer than 200 ICU beds available in Colorado. With only 197 beds available, Bookman added hospitals are beginning to implement their surge plans, cancel elective surgeries and close clinics and outlying facilities to meet staffing needs.

“We cannot stress enough the state that our hospitals are currently in today, the stress that they are feeling, the impact that this wave is having on them,” he said.

Polis in the past has stressed that diminished hospital capacity would be the factor he weighs most heavily in considering new COVID-19 restrictions. But he said Friday the current rate was not enough to spur executive action.

“While it should ring alarm bells that we have 197 ICU beds available, that is different from states that have zero ICU beds available,” he said. “We do have ICU beds available, we do have a higher vaccination rate than many of the states that are suffering from overwhelming of their hospitals.

“We will continue to watch the data on a day-to-day basis.”

That vaccination rate, Polis announced, now stands at 75% of the eligible population who have received at least one dose. The overall percentage of those who have been fully vaccinated is at 58%.

“Some hospitals are reaching very close to their capacity limits and that wouldn't be happening if people were vaccinated,” he said. “You have 25% of the population that is 80% of the hospitalizations, and they have worse outcomes, higher death rates, longer hospitals stays.

“I'm strongly encouraging you if you haven't yet: get vaccinated.”

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, delivered slightly more positive news, noting at the briefing that the overall number of cases was down. Even that was tinged with a note of warning, though.

“I do want to urge some caution in interpreting this data. One of the things that we often see following holiday weekends are some data aberrations,” Herlihy said. “While this is certainly encouraging news to see that these case counts are going down in the last couple of days, I want too urge caution and not over interpret what we're seeing right now.”

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