‘No qualm if they have a death wish, but they’re clogging our hospitals’: Colorado governor voices frustration at remaining unvaccinated citizens

WATCH: Gov. Polis news conference on Colorado’s COVID-19 response
Gov. Jared Polis during a Sept. 21, 2021, news conference.(KKTV)
Published: Nov. 4, 2021 at 8:36 AM MDT
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DENVER (KKTV) - It’s almost a tale of two pandemics.

In one, more than 72 percent of eligible Coloradans are fully vaccinated, with 80 percent total having had at least one dose. Those Coloradans have a decreased chance of contracting COVID and are highly protected from serious illness and death if they do get infected.

In the other, COVID cases are skyrocketing, transmission is at a record high, and hospital capacity is rapidly approaching a critical level.

“I’m very frustrated,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a news conference Tuesday, making no effort to conceal it. “... Now’s a time when most of us are protected, and yet the 20 percent that haven’t yet chosen to get protected are putting themselves at risk, which, you know, you can certainly argue is their own business. And I have no qualm if they have a death wish. But they’re clogging our hospitals.”

Currently, 1 in 51 Coloradans is infected with the virus, the fifth-highest rate in the country. Hospitalizations are the highest they’ve been in 11 months, and if the current trajectory were to worsen by even 5 percent, hospitals could reach the brink of capacity by December, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy.

“If you are unvaccinated, that means a trip to the grocery store or a night out to dinner are more dangerous than they have been at any point in the pandemic for you,” Polis said. “I want to make sure Coloradans know that data. The delta variant is brutally effective at seeking out the unvaccinated like a laser-guided missile, infecting them and often killing them. It’s never been more dangerous for an unvaccinated person than it is right now.

And the data from the state health department bear this out. Of the people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Nov. 4, 80 percent are unvaccinated.

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Those vaccinated and hospitalized tend to skew much older than those unvaccinated and in the hospital, and according to the CDC often are either immunocompromised or have other underlying health issues.

The governor said that when he signed the FedEx slips for the first vaccine shipments last year, he never dreamed so many Coloradans would choose not to get vaccinated.

“I’m really calling upon everybody who haven’t been vaccinated to take a new look at it and make that decision to get vaccinated. I mean, you’ve been putting it off for whatever reason. You see our hospitals filled with people who are unvaccinated of all ages. You see that, like, almost no one is dying who is young and healthy or even middle-aged who’s vaccinated, and yet people are still dying by the dozens who are unvaccinated. I just don’t know what else you need.”

Polis lifted the statewide mask mandate months ago and has so far nixed reinstating one.

“With regard to some of the mitigation measures, you know, of course wearing masks indoors around others helps protect those who are unvaccinated. But again, the patience of most Coloradans is wearing very thin about why we should keep wearing masks just to protect the 20 percent of folks who haven’t taken a simple step to protect themselves.”

And wearing a mask could give unvaccinated people an inflated sense of security, he suggested.

“Here’s what masks can do. They can slow down the spread of the virus. But, if you get the virus, whether you were wearing a mask or not, it’s just as deadly if you’re unvaccinated. So, I don’t want unvaccinated Coloradans thinking that wearing a mask is somehow a substitute for getting vaccinated.”

He echoed what most health experts now believe -- that like the flu before it, COVID-19 is probably here to stay, and we will have to learn to live with it.

“Wearing a mask can reduce the rate of community transmission, but don’t think you’ve dodged a bullet just because you wore a mask this month if you’re unvaccinated. You will probably get COVID in December, in March, in April. This will become endemic. People will die after the pandemic in the endemic stage, just as people die of the flu and of measles and of other conditions that we are able to make great progress in preventing through vaccines.”

There is some hope on the horizon, with a previously untapped demographic now starting vaccinations. The FDA gave the green light this week for kids 5-11 to get a lower-dose version of the Pfizer vaccine, an age group that in Colorado has regularly had the highest transmission rates since schools returned to in-person learning in August. Vaccinations for children will begin a state-run sites Friday, with some private practices already offering appointments. Polis has set a goal of getting half of all children 5 to 11 years old vaccinated by the end of January.

But in the meantime, until as Colorado weathers its worst surge last winter, the state is facing difficult options to cull hospitalizations, the most serious consequence of the increased case load. Polis signed an executive order allowing for the transfer of both COVID and non-COVID patients from hospitals that are full or need the patients moved to a different level of care, and he is weighing temporarily stopping cosmetic and elective procedures to alleviate further pressure on hospitals. Reactivating crisis standards of care and requesting a FEMA medical surge team are also on the table.

But the easiest and most effective way to ease hospitalizations lies in a small vial found at hundreds of locations statewide with a multitude of time slots available every day. Whether Colorado ends this surge and puts the worst of COVID in the rearview mirror or not lies in the hands of unvaccinated Coloradans.

“One thing is sure. The level of the vaccination rate that you have in your state or your county affects what that peak is. Areas that have lower vaccination rates are going to peak out at a much higher infection rate. Areas with higher vaccination rates are going to peak out at a lower COVID infection rate,” Polis said.

Showing his aggravation at the few holding up the pandemic for the many, he repeated:

“I think most Coloradans are sick and tired of wearing masks to protect people who don’t seem to want to protect themselves.”

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