Ari Armstrong, Coronavirus, Governor Polis, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Polis and the nursing home COVID deaths fiasco

It’s the sort of story that could change the course of a high-level election. Ben Markus’s article for Colorado Public Radio (CPR), “How Colorado Caught COVID: The Third Wave,” critically explores the failure of Governor Jared Polis’s administration to control viral outbreaks in Colorado nursing homes during a critical time.

Markus reports, “Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Colorado had the worst rate of death per occupied nursing home bed in the U.S. It was twice the rate of death as the national average, according to the federal data. Those deaths were driven by an inability to keep the virus out of nursing homes after the state’s system for testing and contact tracing in the homes collapsed.”

The testing lab run by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) was unable to keep up, Markus reports. So CDPHE tried to contract out the testing, but that was a total disaster. Markus reports: “In a desperate attempt to relieve pressure on the state lab, CDPHE entered into a no-bid contract with a start-up testing company called Curative, then began using it ‘off-label’ to test even nursing home workers and residents without symptoms. The only cited evidence that gamble might pay off: a sampling of 14 test subjects by the company. The state eventually paid Curative nearly $90 million, but finally abandoned the test in January after two chaotic months.”

The Gazette’s Christopher Osher reported the political connections behind the testing: “Records show that Gary Lauder, the grandson of the founder of the Estée Lauder cosmetics company, was an influential backer of San Dimas, Calif.,-based Curative Labs, which snagged a $90 million contract to provide surveillance testing in Colorado nursing homes, where one of every 15 residents died from the coronavirus. Lauder, a financial donor for Democrats, introduced Curative’s [CEO]…and Kacey Wulff, Polis’ pandemic adviser.”

Republicans, who hope to defeat Polis next year, wasted no time playing up these reports. Kristi Burton Brown, chair of the state GOP, took to the radio waves and to social media to condemn Polis as “the Cuomo of the West,” referring to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disastrous handling of infections in nursing homes. She called for a “bipartisan investigation” into the matter.

The facts definitely look bad. Curative seems like it was a long-shot at best, and the political tie smells. And, at least to date, Polis doesn’t seem too interested in trying to get ahead of the story.

Still, the story may damage Polis politically less than Republicans imagine. For starters, Republicans would have to put up a credible and well-financed candidate to challenge Polis and swim against demographic trends to do it. And those Republicans who long downplayed the severity of the pandemic may have a hard time pivoting to accuse Polis of contributing to a Covid disaster. Part of what CPR complains about is Polis not instituting harsher lockdowns, which Republicans generally opposed.

In the end, Colorado did not fare too badly in the pandemic, so Polis can plausibly claim he did a pretty good job overall managing the crisis. We can hardly expect perfect decisions during a chaotic crisis in which people had limited information. I guess someone could try to argue that death counts would be lower had Walker Stapleton won the governorship rather than Polis, but I find that hard to believe.

A web site maintained by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports nursing-home Covid stats by state. As of June 20, Colorado had 137 deaths per 1,000 residents. That’s worse than most but not all of our neighbors. Oklahoma had 154; Texas, 119; Kansas, 120; Nebraska, 98; Wyoming, 98; Utah, 95; Arizona, 118; and New Mexico, 164. We did manage to do worse than New York, which had 111. (I’m not totally confident that reporting by states is consistent.)

CPR arbitrarily limited the timeline. Reporters for Fox31 summarize, “Between Nov. 1, 2020 and Jan. 3, 2021, Colorado’s nursing home death rate surpassed the national average every week. It peaked the week ending Dec. 20, 2020, when it was twice the national rate. However, Colorado’s nursing home death rate was beneath the national average for the rest of the pandemic.”

And Statista shows that, overall (as of July 2), Colorado ranked 11th-best (least-bad) in Covid deaths per 100,000 people, at 118. Best is Hawaii with 37; worst is New Jersey with 298. New York is second-worst at 276.

The blunt fact is that governors just didn’t have much control over the course of the pandemic, so it’s not fair to lay much blame or praise at Polis’s feet. His actions were overwhelmed by federal policy.

This is a good time to review just how badly the federal government flubbed the Covid response. Given the catastrophic failure of the federal government to address the pandemic, governors were basically fighting the disease with both arms and a leg tied behind their backs.

The federal government set states up to fail on testing. In reviewing Michael Lewis’s The Premonition, economist Alex Tabarrok reminds us of “the CDC’s famously botched test, an error which was amplified by the FDA’s forbidding private labs and state governments to develop their own tests.”

And nursing homes were left unprotected during the time Markus reviews because the federal government slowed the vaccine rollout. True, “Operation Warp Speed” funded vaccine development, but other federal policies dramatically impeded it. Business Insider reminds us, “Moderna designed its vaccine in just two days in January [2020], before some people had even heard of the coronavirus.” But testing took months longer than it might have because regulators forbade “human challenge trials,” in which volunteers in vaccine trials agree to be purposely exposed to the virus.

If you’re looking for someone to blame for many of Colorado’s 7,024 “deaths due to COVID-19” (as of July 2) and 1,752 deaths among nursing-home residents (as of June 20), start with the bumbling bureaucrats of the FDA. We would have suffered deaths even with the best response, but federal ineptitude dramatically increased the toll.

Relative to federal policy, everything Polis did or didn’t do regarding the pandemic is a side-show. Still, every life counts, and Polis owes it to the families of the victims of the pandemic to better-explain his decisions and to review forthrightly what went wrong.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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