WASHINGTON — Since almost the beginning of the pandemic, states have vied for the status of being the one that got the coronavirus response right. There was New York, with its intense lockdowns, followed by Florida’s edgy disregard for masks and vaccines. Neither of those approaches, however, ultimately turned out to be nearly successful enough to serve as a national model.
In recent weeks, though, Colorado has emerged as the model of a measured response that recognizes that people are yearning to return to normal without imperiling public health. The model could prove especially instructive as other Democratic states rush to lift mask mandates in recent days.
“There is a balance here to be struck,” Scott Bookman, the director of Colorado’s coronavirus response, told Yahoo News in an interview, reflecting on the state’s shift. “There are consequences to completely shutting things down. Just as there are consequences to completely opening things up.”
The change in thinking took hold as the Omicron variant arrived in November of last year and swept across the country throughout December. Democratic governors and mayors expanded vaccine requirements and moved to reimpose restrictions like mask mandates. Many Republicans, meanwhile, sought to dismiss the new variant as unworthy of such restrictions.
The discordant response left many Americans confused, deepening their exhaustion with a pandemic that has been marked by confusing messaging and competing political imperatives that seemed to undercut public health.
Much of that confusion remains, even as Omicron ebbs. The White House remains defiantly cautious, with President Biden and first lady Jill Biden photographed walking alone across the South Lawn of the White House in face masks earlier this week. That was on Sunday. But by Thursday, a cavalcade of Democratic states had lifted mask mandates, reflecting a significant shift in COVID protocols as the pandemic reaches its third year.
The dilemma is both simple and intractable: How much should the coronavirus continue to disrupt our lives?
Colorado may not have the answer, but it has framed its response that appears to have made sense to people, in contrast to the confusing, competing narratives now emerging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So what, exactly, did Colorado do?
Not all that much. The Rocky Mountain state was exceptional mostly for refusing the COVID protocol extremes, neither making a point of dispensing with all caution nor issuing the kinds of warnings that had the ominous feel of early 2020 lockdowns. As a state that includes both liberal and conservative enclaves, Colorado does not have the luxury of a response to hew closely to one party line or the other.
As Omicron was poised to take over from the Delta variant in early December, the state’s first-term governor, Jared Polis, decided to follow a kind of middle ground, to act not out of an abundance of caution or without any caution at all, but with the amount of caution the moment merited.
Polis concluded that the Omicron variant did not, in fact, warrant all that much caution at all.
“The emergency is over,” he said in a December interview. To make that point, Polis added that he would not be returning the state to a mask mandate. His reasoning was that vaccines were free, widely available and much more effective than masks. “At this point, if you haven’t been vaccinated, it’s really your own darn fault,” he said.
The statement may no longer seem striking, two months after it was uttered. But in late December, a Washington Post op-ed by University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm and public health expert Ezekiel J. Emanuel decreed Omicron potentially “the worst public health challenge of our lifetimes.” For a Democrat to have bucked that thinking amounts to a kind of contrarianism, even though by early December it was already known that Omicron caused less severe disease than the preceding Delta strain — and that vaccines continued to do an excellent job of keeping people out of hospitals.
In other words, the features of the new strain, combined with relatively high vaccination rates across the state, appeared to justify Polis’s decision to buck conventional liberal wisdom.
Even as the Omicron variant surged in Colorado — and the country — throughout January and hospitals filled up, Polis opposed reimposing a mask mandate or instituting new limits on gatherings. “For the unvaccinated, COVID represents a serious ongoing threat, and the governor wishes those Coloradans would protect themselves and their families,” Polis spokesperson Conor Cahill told Yahoo News in an email in the midst of that surge. “But Gov. Polis cannot allow this small minority to infringe on everybody else and prevent Colorado from moving beyond the pandemic.”
Polis’s deviation from Democratic party-line thinking has been both modest and significant. At a time when moderation was rare, Polis immediately became a hero to moderates, so much so that Washington tip sheet Axios — a must-read for many East Coast political operatives and journalists — offered him as a potential presidential contender in 2024, the first of many outlets to reward Polis breaking with orthodoxy.
“His pro-vaccine, non-alarmist outlook is a prerequisite for the party’s political recovery,” a National Journal headline read.
Democrats and Republicans alike have looked for pandemic heroes throughout the coronavirus crisis, only to be frustrated by reality. Andrew Cuomo of New York emerged in early 2020 as a favorite of the left, but a number of scandals related to the pandemic and alleged sexual misconduct tarnished his reputation and forced him to resign. Ron DeSantis of Florida has been lionized by those who dislike all coronavirus restrictions, but he has laced such advocacy with anti-scientific rhetoric about vaccines and COVID-19 treatments.
The Polis presidential boomlet may overstate what just what he managed to accomplish other than making a key rhetorical turn at precisely the moment when the public needed to hear something new. About 1,700 people still died from COVID-19 in Colorado during the Omicron surge. Whether restrictions could have lessened the toll is unclear; a recent study by libertarian economists at Johns Hopkins University argued that lockdowns produced no public health benefits, but that conclusion has been called into question.
And to be sure, some health professionals say that dropping precautions now is dangerous and likely to lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.
“Declarations of a state of emergency are political decisions; however, the virus continues to drive a public health and health systems emergency,” Dartmouth College public health expert Anne Sosin told Yahoo News in a text message. She has been critical of the rush by some governors to lift mask mandates in schools and other venues, fearing that they are motivated by political pressures more than by sound public health.
“We’re being held hostage by the virus and our lack of political will to control it, not mitigation strategies,” Sosin recently told the New Republic.
Still, it is clear that governors are moving away from those strategies, increasingly considering economic and social costs — to children and the elderly in particular — alongside public health advice (i.e., “ the science”) that has generally called for putting safety first.
New York, New Jersey and Delaware just announced that they would get rid of their school mask mandates. California is expected to follow suit.
“Governors and local officials are seeing the sentiments of the people they’re serving,” public health expert Dr. Leana Wen told the New York Times of those state-level developments. “And public health has to meet people where they are.”
The White House does not appear to fully approve of the Colorado way, with press secretary Jen Psaki disapproving of Polis’s “your own darn fault” comment when asked about them in December. Those were not the words the “president has used or would use,” she said in a response to a journalist’s question.
But the president had, in fact, used similar language throughout the fall, describing “a pandemic of the unvaccinated” that was prolonging the misery of the 200 million who had duly gotten their shots. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us,” he said in a September speech laced with frustration.
Biden left off that rhetoric by December, whereas Polis did the opposite, taking it one logical step further: If the burden of the pandemic rested on unvaccinated people, then vaccinated people could return to ordinary life. In this view, unvaccinated people were assuming the risk of infection with the full knowledge that they were doing so, which made mask mandates an unfair penalty on those who had gotten their shots.
“People just don’t react well to this ongoing environment of fear,” Polis told the New York Times.
Some have countered by pointing out that masks are a small price to pay for protecting vulnerable and unvaccinated people, whatever the reasons for their lack of vaccination may be. But while Americans were willing to accept that argument in 2020, they seem much less willing to do so in 2022 throughout a growing number of states.
“I definitely see that there’s a lot of fatigue across the board with the measures we’ve had to take,” said University of Colorado public health expert Glen Mays in a phone interview with Yahoo News. “Masks are a very visible sign of those precautions.”
Immunization was meant to alleviate the need for those precautions, but concerns about breakthrough infections have obscured the fact that vaccines work remarkably well at preventing severe and critical illness. And though vaccine efficacy does deteriorate over time, it remains remarkably high, especially with the added protection of a booster shot.
“I think some Democratic leaders have not touted how vaccines are our path to normalcy, and that has been disappointing and discouraging two years into the pandemic,” University of California, San Francisco infectious disease expert Dr. Monica Gandhi wrote to Yahoo News in an email.
About 69 percent of Colorado’s population is vaccinated, a figure somewhat above the national average. Getting a booster shot offers even greater protection. Colorado state has boosted more than 43 percent of its population, making it 10th in the country in that category.
Hospitals in Colorado did fill up with COVID-19 patients throughout December and January, but they were able to handle the surge because the high rate of vaccination statewide alleviated pressure on the medical system. “Our hospitals were nowhere near, really, emergency levels of response,” Mays recalled.
Colorado continues to have one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in a country where some 2,000 people are felled by the disease daily. With vaccine uptake stalled and vaccine skepticism hardened, it is not clear how much public health officials can do.
Polis spokesman Cahill said that the governor was acutely concerned about “the rising costs and economic disruptions caused by the pandemic,” an issue some observers say Democrats have been slow to address. He has also called for schools to stay open, another battleground on which moderate Democrats and progressives have been sparring.
“Colorado will keep moving forward,” Cahill told Yahoo News, “so we can get back to enjoying the life we love in our beautiful state.”