Colorado is planning to reopen even without widespread testing, which experts stressed is necessary

Posted at 7:04 PM, Apr 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-24 12:19:57-04

DENVER — When it reopens on April 27, Colorado will become one of the first states in the country to do so.

In the days afterward, dozens of other states are also planning on lifting their stay-at-home orders and gradually reopen their economies.

For weeks, experts have stressed that one of the important steps in reopening is the availability of widespread testing.

During a news conference just last week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) said the testing capabilities of the state are not there yet.

“We are aware of the need for testing. The governor was very clear that the state will not reopen until it has capacity to make everyone safe and he has really given us charge to ensure we can do mass testing across state,” said CDPHE incident commander Scott Bookman during the April 16 briefing.

Even while unveiling his “Safer-at-Home” initiative, the governor acknowledged that the state still needs more testing.

“We don’t have all the testing we want. We have ten times as much testing as what we did when started,” Gov. Polis said.

However, Dr. Tom Moore, an infectious disease expert, said testing and timing are critical aspects to states being able to reopen safely.

“I think any state that says you're supposed to have 14 straight days of declining numbers of new cases in order to say that your state is ready to reopen... I don’t think Colorado is at that point, but once they get to that point of the 14-day steady decline in the number of new cases, they could begin to open up, again, with the provision that they have adequate testing available, that it’s widely available, that it’s easily affordable and that you’ve got contact tracing so you can track down the cases," Dr. Moore said.

The state is still working on setting up its system of contact tracing to figure out who novel coronavirus patients are coming into contact with. Even with inadequate testing, however, the state is moving for reopening gradually.

“We’re taking a calculated risk. I think we’re all going into this understanding that there is a lot of uncertainty,” said Dr. Lee Newman, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “There’s not a right answer to this and there’s not an easy answer to this.”

Dr. Newman doesn’t believe there is a perfect time to reopen and that counties and the state are going to have to take things one week at a time.

It will be up to state officials to see if the number of new cases increases after the stay-at-home order is lifted and whether the state will have to close down again.

The number of hospital beds available and ventilator availability will also play a role in how the state moves forward.

“I don’t think we’re reopening too quickly, but time is going to tell if we have loosened up too much too fast,” Dr. Newman said.

A lot of the next few weeks will also depend on the number of people who adhere to the guidance to still stay home and only go out when necessary as well as the steps they take to protect themselves and others, such as wearing masks and maintaining proper social distancing.

Dr. Jason Kelly, the chief medical officer at Sky Ridge Medical Center, agrees with the governor’s decision to reopen gradually.

“This is everybody’s first pandemic and so we don’t really know what the right formula is for reopening, but I think that we’re making a lot of sensible decisions,” Dr. Kelly said. “I think to some degree we need to re-open and I think leaving it to local areas or states to the side and looking at the prevalence of the disease and how many sick people are in that area, what makes sense — I think we’re going down the right path.”

Both doctors agreed that even a gradual reopening could lead to more novel coronavirus cases popping up in the future.

Dr. Kelly said he is preparing for another surge to make sure the hospital has enough ICU capacity and ventilators for patients.

The hospital is also being careful about the patients coming in.

“You can’t test your way to safety, but you can protect your way to safety, so what we’re really concerned about in the hospital is almost treating every patient like they’re positive,” he said.

In a statement, the Colorado Hospital Association said it understands the desire from the public to return to normal life and the governor’s desire to help get things moving once again with the “Safer-at-Home” guidance.

However, the CHA’s president and CEO, Chris Tholen, said returning to normal needs to be done responsibly.

“We appreciate Governor Polis’ leadership through this crisis and the recognition that it’s likely that a one-size-fits-all plan may not be the best approach. Some communities may have different needs and resources and those need to be considered as we create a plan that works for all of Colorado,” the statement read.

As part of the gradual reopening, CHA said hospitals will likely begin to reintroduce some non-emergent surgeries and procedures but the association has asked hospitals to monitor their patient numbers, PPE supplies, ICU bed capacity, staffing and ventilator availability.

“We will also work closely with the state to ensure that we sound the alarm if our system is near capacity because of a new surge,” the statement read.

It also asked Coloradans to do their part to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

As the state prepares to reopen, it will be up to the governor and counties to determine the pace at which things can return to normal, but the data will ultimately determine if the state is taking the right approach.