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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

As COVID-19 Cases Rise In Colorado, Hospital Beds And Equipment In Short Supply

Michael de Yoanna
The State Emergency Operations Center in Centennial south of Denver is coordinating Colorado's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As coronavirus cases rise in Colorado, so does demand for the supplies needed to fight the pandemic. That includes surgical masks, gloves and gowns — all the personal protective equipment vital to preventing health care workers from getting COVID-19 themselves.

Communities are deeply concerned that supplies will run out — as well as hospital beds. The state's own stockpiles have already taken a hit as Gov. Jared Polis warns that federal aid to Colorado has so far been insufficient.

"Like many governors of both parties across the country, I'm furious that as a leader of the free world, we're being forced to close down businesses and restaurants and bars because the United States, unlike South Korea, unlike Taiwan, didn't have enough personal protection equipment, enough ventilators, to care for those who would get this virus," Polis said in a press conference this week.

The federal government has twice allocated tens of thousands of masks, gowns, face shields and other equipment to the state. Health officials estimate each shipment of supplies would last about a day, or two days total.

That leaves areas like Eagle County, which is home to Vail Ski Resort, bracing for shortages and embracing policies like closure orders. The governor's announcement on March 15 to close downhill skiing made a dent in the spread of coronavirus, according to Birch Barron, the county's emergency manager.

"Our county went down from our peak resort population of around 150,000 during the winter back down to about the population we see during non-ski-season times, which is about a third of that," Barron said.

Since then, local and state officials have day by day limited gatherings of people. Polis finally implemented a statewide stay-at-home order March 25, saying that social distancing isn’t enough to slow cases and that “we need time” to build up the health system. The measure, he said in a call with reporters, would save lives.

Eagle County was one of the first places in the state hit hard by coronavirus. Health officials have identified about 175 cases per 100,000 people there, one of the highest rates in the state in the almost three weeks since the first case was announced. Between testing and treating patients, supplies of personal protective equipment in the county were drawn down significantly.

"We are already in a place where we had health care providers down to zero surgical masks, for example," Barron said. "Or down to points where they were using expired equipment or using equipment that was not necessarily the one that's medically indicated."

That's affected other services. Some fire and police services have been put on hold because there's not enough protective gear for them to wear in every situation, Barron said. The alternative is doctors, nurses, paramedics without equipment unable to continue to address cases.

That's left Vail Health Hospital, a key health provider for the region, asking people to donate supplies — even hand sanitizer. Such pleas are now common from hospitals and health departments across the state.

Another concern is a lack of hospital beds if the virus spreads too quickly. Scenarios projected by the Harvard Global Health Institute show hospitals everywhere inundated, if not overwhelmed, by COVID-19 cases. Such strains are already being felt in New York and California.

In Colorado, the projection forecasts that if 20% of the adult population became infected by the coronavirus in the next six months, hospitals in the state would fill 120% of their total beds and 193% of their total ICU beds. That's if all existing beds were dedicated to COVID-19 patients and used for no other patients.

Many hospital administrators share the same concern, including Vail Health Hospital CEO Will Cook. He wrote an open letter to the mountain community.

"The truth is, if we don't commit to disciplined social distancing now, our 56-bed Vail Health Hospital will be overflowing within 2-4 weeks," Cook wrote. "We will not have enough respirators to keep people alive, and locals of all ages will be dying. The other hospitals in America will be full too. We've already had a handful of COVID-19 patients transported to Denver for more advanced care; however, once the Denver hospitals are full, we will no longer be able to transport these people to a lower elevation."

With the fear that hospitals could fill up, Barron said alternatives are being discussed around the state.

"All of us are in conversations with the state about how we set up field hospitals and put cots and stretchers in open spaces," Barron said. "Setting up cots and stretchers is the easy part, but how many nurses and doctors are there to take care of those patients if we get to that point."

In Centennial, the State Emergency Operations Center brings workers together from critical agencies like public health, homeland security and the National Guard. Big video screens on the wall light up the room, including the ever-rising number of cases, the counties where they are located and the number of hospitalizations.

Credit Michael de Yoanna / KUNC
A dashboard at the State Emergency Operations Center in Centennial tracks cases of COVID-19 in the state, the counties where they are located and the number of hospitalizations.

Micki Trost, strategic communications director for the center, said that information helps officials direct the state's response.

"That's how we put together this broader state picture on 'What do we need? How do we get those resources? Where do we send them? What absolute support do they need? And can we work with our federal partners on meeting resource needs in the form of funding or additional resources?'" Trost told KUNC during a recent visit.

State emergency workers have faced historic floods, wildfires and other emergencies. Coronavirus is uncharted territory for them.

"Absolutely it is different than any other emergency we have worked on," Trost said.

As officials emphasize social distancing for essential workers, even the operations center has followed suit. As of the first part of this week, about half its staff are working remotely to help protect their critical missions.

"One of the big pieces is that without the buy-in from all of our community members, we can't make the difference that we need fast enough," Trost said.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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