A little more than a month into Colorado’s battle with coronavirus, Gov. Jared Polis and his team reached the helpless realization that there was no end in sight.
At that point, more than 8,000 people had tested positive for the disease and over 350 had died, including scores living in senior-care centers. The stay-at-home order imposed by the governor was costing people their livelihoods. Personal protective equipment and coronavirus test kits were still nearly impossible to come by.
Polis had no choice but to tell Coloradans that things would only get worse. He could try to limit the devastation, but he couldn’t prevent it. “Coronavirus is going to be part of our lives,” he conceded at an April 15, 2020, news conference at the governor’s mansion. “We’re going to have to live with it.”Then came the now-infamous question from a reporter about his response to the pandemic: Had the governor heard people were likening him, a Jew who lost family in the Holocaust, to a Nazi? There was pressure building on him from fellow Democrats to keep onerous restrictions in place, outrage from Republicans that he wasn’t rolling them back, frustration from businesses on the verge of closing and pleas for help from local public health agencies.
The anxious public, meanwhile, was waiting for direction.
The normally coolheaded politician quickly launched into one of his classic, confident responses from the lonely island of his lectern. Polis made it about a dozen words before he broke down in tears. For the first and only time since the coronavirus reached Colorado, his public-facing wall of confidence cracked.
“We act to save lives,” the governor said, choking back emotion. “The exact opposite” of what the Nazis did. To observers, it may have seemed Polis was simply overwhelmed by the offensive comparison. To those close to the governor, however, his reaction was also part of a watershed moment in Colorado’s pandemic response.
“You were coming to terms with ‘we couldn’t fix everything,’” Lisa Kaufmann, Polis’ chief of staff and longtime confidant, told the governor recently.
The Colorado Sun was granted hours of behind-the-scenes access last week to get a sense of what goes into each day of the state’s coronavirus response as Colorado approaches the one-year anniversary Friday of when the disease was first detected here.
Polis also spoke to The Sun at length, sharing previously untold stories about COVID-19 – which he and his partner, Marlon Reis, both contracted – and how the public health crisis has been a major challenge for him professionally and personally.
“You’re in a triage situation,” Polis said in an interview, explaining how he has often had to go against his instincts in order to keep the public safe. “You know there’s going to be lives lost. Who would think losing 6,000 people could ever be a win instead of 8,000? It’s just horrific every day.”Additionally, The Sun interviewed a number of the governor’s critics and supporters about his job performance over the past year. While most said he responded well to an untenable situation, at times they vehemently disagreed with his actions.
Still, the governor’s job approval rating has been consistent even as Colorado’s unemployment rate rose to among the worst in the country.
“I think the governor did the best he could with the information we had,” said state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican and Polis critic.
‘It was go time
Polis and his top deputies huddled in a room at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment headquarters in east Denver. It was the afternoon of March 5, 2020, and they were putting the final touches on their plan to announce that Colorado had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. It was in a California man who had recently traveled to Italy and now was in Summit County to ski.
Then Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s top epidemiologist, received a phone call. There was another case. This one was an older woman in Douglas County who had just returned home from a cruise.
“It was go time,” Polis said. “We knew that this was going to rapidly erupt here because there were examples in other parts of the world where this had already happened.”
COVID-19 likely reached Colorado weeks, if not months, earlier. The California man was almost certainly not the first case. “He probably was the 1,000th or 10,000th person in our state to get it,” Polis now says. Polis hadn’t interacted much with his public health team, including Herlihy, incident commander Scott Bookman and Dr. Eric France, the state’s chief medical officer, before coronavirus. They had only worked together on some relatively minor problems. “It sounds quaint now, but we had mumps outbreaks in Summit County,” Polis said.
That meant he had to get up to speed with both a complicated virus and the people he would come to rely on for the next year to fight it.
“The governor worked very hard to understand not only the disease, (but) the epidemiology,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, Polis’ pick to lead the CDPHE. “I think he really leaned in to understand. We were giving him as much information daily as he could absorb.”
Now, the governor says he reads every article published about COVID-19. He scans Reddit for more information. He often sends Herlihy links late at night.
In the early days, however, there wasn’t much information available. The governor, for instance, told the public not to worry that the California man had spread coronavirus at Denver International Airport as he traveled to Colorado because he was asymptomatic during his flight. “SARS-CoV-2 is such a novel virus,” Hunsaker Ryan said in an interview last month. “No other virus behaves like this. Between the asymptomatic transmission that can be up to 50% of infections, but also just the nature of the continuum of clinical presentation from no symptoms to mild to serious to death. In the beginning there was so much we – the collective ‘we’ around the globe – did not understand.”In coronavirus, the governor met his match.
Polis has spent his life rising quickly through the ranks as an entrepreneur and in politics by trying to outsmart and outwork others. He’s parlayed success into more success. But coronavirus doesn’t care how hard Jared Polis works. It doesn’t care who he knows. It definitely doesn’t care how much money he has.
“It’s a problem that by its very nature can’t be solved,” he said. “You can’t work all night until 4 in the morning and 5 in the morning and fix this. That’s very frustrating.”
The Trump administration’s ‘gaslighting’
Two days after Polis announced Colorado’s first coronavirus cases, Vice President Mike Pence called the governor to discuss the state’s request for more test kits.
Pence said Colorado, which at that point had the capacity to test only about 160 people a day, had enough supplies. The governor told him it wasn’t enough.
The back-and-forth sparring, described by a top aide to Polis as a 20-round bout, served as a preview of the lack of help Colorado would get from the Trump administration. Not long after the Pence phone call, Polis and other governors were on a call with President Donald Trump, who told the state leaders they were on their own.
“We were all still meeting in person and some of us were sitting around the governor’s round table in his office when it was said and we were kind of in shock,” Kaufmann said. “That was really early and it really kind of set the tone for the partnership – or the lack thereof – with the previous administration.”
Kaufmann accused the Trump administration of “gaslighting” Colorado by repeatedly telling the state it didn’t need supplies that it did, in fact, really need.
The lack of a national, unified response also pitted states against each other in their search for personal protective equipment and test kits. The free-for-all led Polis to pursue some desperate measures, including the ultimately scrapped plan of sending a jumbo jet to Asia to verify and import supplies.
“One time, I called a college classmate of mine who is a doctor in Philadelphia to check out a warehouse in (New) Jersey that allegedly had some masks. He went there and, no surprise, they weren’t the masks that we thought, so we didn’t buy them,” Polis said. “It literally came to governors having to send a buddy in Jersey to check out a warehouse.”Hunsaker Ryan says when a massive coronavirus outbreak happened at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, the Trump administration was of little help. She said she pleaded with Robert Redfield, then the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for help procuring test supplies.
Ultimately, she said Redfield told her the state could “go buy swabs at a Walgreens.”Polis said he avoided speaking out against the Trump administration’s response because he had seen what happened to other governors – like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois’ J.B. Pritzker – who went that route. They were lambasted on Twitter and lost their influence at the White House.
“This was a president who was notoriously vindictive and personal,” Polis said. “I made every effort to keep up good personal relations with the president and vice president.”
The governor thinks it paid off. He had top officials practically on speed dial.
In May, the governor traveled to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Trump at the White House. He says it was “important for the relationship,” even if he faced criticism for not challenging baseless remarks the president made while Polis was there about mail-in voting being “subjected to tremendous corruption – cheating.”“Obviously I had worked in D.C. for 10 years. I had been to the White House on many other occasions,” said Polis, a former congressman. “But this was different. You have to be prepared for rapid non sequiturs and stream of consciousness. And you just sort of go with it and you try to get your points in where you can.”
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