GREELEY — During a 30-minute zoom conference Tuesday afternoon with the Weld County Commissioners, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Jill Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) both praised the county for its response to coronavirus.
Polis also praised Greeley-Evans School District 6 superintendent Deirdre Pilch for not shifting the county’s largest, and the state’s 12th largest, district to remote learning as most districts in Colorado are opting to do.
Polis also agreed that the best way to stop the spread of the virus is through individual, personal responsibility.
“Ultimately, this is a matter of individual responsibility,” Polis said. “It’s on us as public officials to do two things, the testing surge and you’ve been a great partner in that, and the other is the hospital surge … but the biggest part is on people. It’s about individual responsibility.”
Polis, who started the meeting praising the county for its trends since early April, said he sees things going the other way now and wanted ideas for how to slow the spread now, such as “changing behavior.”
“It’s really more of a social and psychological challenge,” Polis said. “People know how to prevent the spread of the virus. They’ve been doing it successfully for many months, but people are just sick and tired of it. … How do we save Christmas? How do we save lives? How do we do this in Weld County?”
Polis’ remarks came after Chairman Mike Freeman said commissioners believe they are doing what is best for the county’s businesses and residents.
Freeman pointed out the efforts of Weld’s health department efforts in contact tracing and messaging, along with plenty of available hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators.
According to the Weld County COVID-19 dashboard which is updated daily at 4 p.m., Weld County (population 325,000) has tested about 25 percent of its residents. Of that, 8,200 were positive, or 10 percent. Since March 16th, 106 residents had died due to COVID-19. There were currently 208 patients hospitalized in Weld County hospitals. The data notes that not all patients in Weld’s hospitals are Weld residents, as some hospitals such as Banner have made cross-county agreements to send COVID patients to Greeley hospitals to avoid the spread, commissioners said.
Mara Brosy-Wiwchar, chief of staff for Ryan, said 20 percent of Larimer county patients are from Weld County. Commissioners disagreed, saying that only three Weld County residents are in adjacent county hospitals.
“We check all the hospitals within the northern Colorado region to make that determination because of our counties being so large,” said outgoing commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer, who was just elected to represent Senate District 23 in the Colorado State Senate. “We’re not hearing that from our hospitals that they are overwhelmed or that they at this point are concerned with their capacity.”
The governor was pleased to hear the report but added that as a “group” the hospitals have come to him with a worry. He said that “group” had not been drilled down specifically to the northern Colorado hospitals, but he cautioned commissioners that they should remain in contact with their hospitals, saying Weld County does not want to be a “burden” on other counties.
“That’s great,” Polis said. “That’s welcome news. … If they are not facing capacity, it’s less of a worry. They sounded the alarm bells with us, which is why we’re reaching out to you. But that would be welcome news if they are not approaching their capacity in Weld County.”
He also recommended a follow up conference with hospitals in northern Colorado to get a better idea of the capacity. However, commissioners said after the meeting they have no desire to have another conference call with the state. They talk to their hospitals daily, something they called their responsibility.
“And we will continue to do so,” Kirkmeyer said.
Kirkmeyer told Polis that hospitals have said they are more concerned about being able to stay open and provide service. There are currently 220 regular beds available in Weld County along with 54 ICU beds and 75 ventilators.
Polis was also critical of the county operating with less remote employees than other like organizations. Kirkmeyer said the county needs to provide the same level of services when residents need them most.
“We actually expect people to work and provide the services that are necessary for all the other people that are within our county,” Kirkmeyer said. “We believe we have been setting a good model. We have human services, health department services, public works, as you stated, we’ve got the correctional facilities with our jail; basically, every single one of our employees we consider critical mission employees, and we expect them to provide services and that we should demonstrate to our constituents that county government is open for business and we are doing it in a safe and responsible manner.”
Throughout the meeting, the governor changed his reason for being concerned about the increased cases.
“Thank goodness for shorter stays,” Polis said about advancements in treatment that have cut the time people are spending in the hospital. “If the average stay was five days like it was at the start, we’d probably be at 1,400 beds … but that’s still 1,000 beds.”
However, when commissioner Kevin Ross questioned why, if the state was concerned about hospital capacity, the overflow hospital at the Ranch in Loveland was shut down, Polis said that was not the main concern anymore.
“The main concern we have are ICU beds,” Polis responded. “Those were non-ICU beds. … we don’t have the ability to build ICU beds.”
When Kirkmeyer said Weld’s hospitals were nowhere near being overwhelmed and added Banner hospital returned ventilators, Polis changed his focus, again.
“We’re not concerned about ventilators,” Polis said. “The biggest concern is around staffing.”
Kirkmeyer then pointed out that staffing is low because hospitals had to furlough employees because Polis shut down elective procedures and the hospitals have never hired them back.
The bulk of Weld County’s cases are between the ages of 20 and 59, with slightly more females than males. The bulk of Weld County’s deaths are older than 60, with 11 deaths occurring in residents 59 or younger and two between birth and 39. More men than women have died of COVID-19 in Weld.
Of the 106 deaths 90 occurred before June 1. There were two deaths in June, none in July, two in August, four in September, five in October and three to date in November.
Weld County’s seven-day rolling average of positive cases began to climb again in mid-October, peaking at 178 daily average on Nov. 6. The average has consistently declined since then with the daily case count at 160.3 as of Nov. 9.
Although it appeared for a while that Ryan was going to request Weld County to move to level three of the “Safer at Home” witnessed in other counties across the state, neither the governor nor Ryan ever suggested that.
“I wanted to compliment Weld County,” Ryan said. “We look at the rates of disease transmission daily. We’ve been working off this dial framework. We have classified framework and restrictions for how open a county can be based on their transmission rates. For months and months and months, Weld County held pretty steady and you were much lower than other counties. And one of the reasons is you have a really sophisticated health department.”
Ryan went on to say that the CDPHE is now “sounding the alarm,” as the cases increase around the state.
The commissioners said after the meeting that nothing was going to change in Weld County. Business could continue to operate as they have been and at the speed they are comfortable with, urging them to follow best practices and do what is right to help slow the spread.
“Because this is a virus, and a virus is going to do what a virus does, and because the governor was in agreement slowing the spread was a matter of individual personal responsibility, we will not be going to level three,” said Freeman.
“We never went down to level two,” Kirkmeyer added.
Kevin Ross added that they will continue to do what Weld County has already been doing and provide information to its residents about the spread and how they can take precautions based on personal choice.
“We are still encouraging them to be responsible,” Commissioner Scott James said. “Our residents still need to take precautions and treat it seriously, but that is their choice.”
This was the first time since the governor closed the state in response to COVID-19 in April that he had met in a scheduled meeting with Weld County. Because Weld County Commissioners make the policy of the Weld Health Department, it was an open meeting under Colorado open meetings laws, so Complete Colorado was in attendance.
Commissioner Steve Moreno said he was appreciative the commissioners finally had a chance to meet with the governor to discuss what Weld County is doing and was happy to see the governor is taking notice.
Video of the full meeting can be found here.