The Polis administration says the Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee is not geared for rapid decision-making.
Late last week, a group of some of the state’s foremost experts on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic settled in behind their computer screens for another virtual meeting.
The Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee, known by the acronym GEEERC, is made up of people from the worlds of medicine, public health, government and emergency management. Its task during a pandemic, dictated by a state law dating back to 2000, is to “convene as rapidly and as often as necessary to advise the governor … regarding reasonable and appropriate measures to reduce or prevent spread of the disease.”
But this was the GEEERC’s first meeting in a month, and the agenda was rather sparse – a presentation about the latest epidemiological data, an update about vaccine distribution, some standard training. At a time when Gov. Jared Polis is loosening restrictions across the state, changing the state’s COVID-19 “dial” framework, working rapidly to get vaccines into arms and closely monitoring the spread of potentially worrisome new coronavirus variants, there were no major items for the committee to vote or provide counsel on.
And, to some observers, that’s troubling.
“I just don’t understand it,” state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican from Weld County, said in an interview. “It’s there. It’s not that difficult to do. These people are experts. This is what they live to do.”
When Kirkmeyer served in former Gov. Bill Owens’ administration, she used to sit on the GEEERC. (The acronym’s pronunciation rhymes with “perk.”) Now a state lawmaker, Kirkmeyer last month peppered Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan with questions during a legislative hearing about why GEEERC was not meeting more frequently or giving guidance about higher-profile issues.
Polis has made himself a singular face of the state response to the pandemic in Colorado, typically hosting livestreamed press briefings twice a week and using his Twitter account to announce major changes in policy. But often less clear is how Polis arrives at his decisions.
Kirkmeyer linked Polis’ approach with the GEEERC to the state’s communication failures with local public health agencies, which have left local officials scrambling to adjust to announcements they didn’t know were coming.
“It appears that we’re kind of winging it,” Kirkmeyer said to Ryan, who is the chairwoman of GEEERC.
But Ryan said the 20-member committee isn’t set up to respond as rapidly as needed during the fast-changing pandemic.
The Colorado General Assembly created the GEEERC in 2000, with the goal of helping the state prepare for epidemics and acts of bioterrorism. In pre-COVID times, it met only four times per year to review plans and get updates about comparatively smaller health crises, such as a hepatitis A outbreak. Those on the committee who don’t work for the state are volunteers. They have day jobs – often ones that now keep them plenty busy battling the coronavirus as doctors, epidemiologists and emergency managers.
“It’s not geared for really quick rapid decision-making or advisement to the governor,” Ryan responded to Kirkmeyer. “It’s just the nature of how quickly the response moves,” she added. “... It’s not good for decision-making in a 100-year pandemic.”
Sidelined on big decisionsWhen the pandemic began, it appeared GEEERC would be a prominent voice shaping the state’s response.
“I want to thank all of you for serving on the GEEERC during the period of this emergency,” Polis said at the group’s first meeting during the pandemic, back in March. “You are really playing a critical role.”
Within hours after GEEERC made a recommendation during the meeting that Polis order bars and restaurants closed to in-person dining, the governor did exactly that. Since then, though, GEEERC has often seemed to have been left out of big decisions made by Polis, or at least left a step behind.
On the day in July when Polis issued a statewide mask mandate, GEEERC coincidentally held a meeting, during which members discussed writing a letter to Polis recommending a mask order. The debate went back and forth until one member said they understood Polis to have already made a decision to issue the order.
“I’ll say that’s a not-public decision yet,” Ryan responded. Polis announced the order about an hour later.
GEEERC made no formal recommendations about the creation of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions dial. Nor was it consulted before major changes to the dial.
The committee – and, specifically, a subcommittee of GEEERC made up of doctors and other medical experts called the GMAG, for GEEERC Medical Advisory Group – did play an important role in crafting the state’s initial prioritization plan for who should be vaccinated first. But it was not consulted on subsequent changes to that plan.
Some of the changes to the vaccine plan came after new federal guidance. But others – such as the decision to remove people who are incarcerated from the priority list – stripped out parts of the ethical framework GEEERC recommended.
“I would be remiss,” Dr. Stephen Cantrill, a Denver Health emergency medicine specialist who leads GMAG, said during a GEEERC meeting the day after Polis unveiled the revised plan, “if i didn’t mention that many of the members of the GMAG are somewhat frustrated and dispirited by this in terms of the process and the fact that they really were not involved in the decision-making at a high level.”
Cantrill did not respond to an interview request made after that meeting.
During a training session in the meeting last week, GEEERC members were told they should not reply to interview requests and should instead refer them to CDPHE.
“The department will handle all of that for you,” Alexandra Haas, the CDPHE official leading the training, said.“There is no transparency here”
To Kirkmeyer, Polis’ decision not to rely more on GEEERC isn’t just about where the governor receives pandemic advice. It’s also about transparency.
GEEERC meetings are public. Some even allow for public comment. By seeing the debate that goes into the governor’s orders, Kirkmeyer said Coloradans can have a better understanding of them – maybe even more trust in them.
“This is exactly why you have a GEEERC, so you don’t look at this from political pressure or the political side of things,” she said.
As is, Kirkmeyer said Polis issues an order – such as loosening restrictions to allow restaurants to operate at greater capacity or moving workers in a certain industry up in vaccine priority – and people have no way of knowing whom the governor spoke to when making that decision.
“We don’t know because there is no transparency here,” she said.
In a statement, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said the governor meets “daily and/or weekly” with state health officials, including Ryan, CDPHE Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eric France, state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy and COVID-19 incident commander Scott Bookman. Polis also meets weekly with Dr. Jonathan Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, whom Polis has often referred to as “Colorado’s Dr. Fauci.” Samet leads a team of researchers creating modeling predictions for the course of the pandemic in the state.
Cahill said the GEEERC “is not structured, nor is it the right forum, for day-to-day operational decisions of the pandemic.”