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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on the absence of a national vaccine stockpile

Each day the U.S. is averaging more than 130,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths. States reported more than 23,000 deaths over last week alone. That's about 25 percent higher than at any point in the pandemic. Vaccinations remain a key hope, but distribution is slow and disorganized in many places. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a critic of the rollout, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As part of inauguration week, there will be tributes on the National Mall to remember the 400,000 people in this country who have died from COVID-19.

    It was just about a year ago, when the first confirmed cases of this novel coronavirus were found in the U.S. But the scope of the problem has accelerated dramatically this fall and winter, with the last 100,000 deaths occurring in just the last month of so.

    William Brangham looks at where we are and the ongoing efforts to get vaccines into the arms of Americans.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, as you said, just the numbers over the last several weeks have been staggering.

    Each day, the nation is averaging about 130,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths. That's every single day. States reported more than 23,000 deaths over the past week alone. That's 25 percent higher than any other week since the pandemic began, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

    In fact, the project reported that last week's total number of deaths exceeded the CDC's estimate of total flu-related deaths from last year.

    Of course, vaccination remains a key hope for eventually finding our way out of this pandemic. But distribution remains slow and confusing and disorganized in many places.

    Colorado's Democratic Governor Jared Polis is one of several governors who've been publicly critical of the Trump administration's work on that front.

    And he joins me now.

    Governor Polis, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    Before we get to policy questions, I wonder if you could just reflect on this year that we have been through. You only had a year in the governor's office before the pandemic hit. We have now lost 400,000 Americans. I know you have lost, I think it's 5,000 Coloradans.

    Can you just give us a sense of what this year has been like for you and for your state?

  • Gov. Jared Polis:

    Well, first, condolences to all those who lost a loved one. First and foremost, that 400,000 number is seared into the collective soul of America, an unprecedented level of loss.

    Beyond that, it is a loss of our elderly relatives' ability to socialize and see one another, even those who weren't affected by the health crisis, to see senior homes where there is no poker night, there's no movie night in the golden years of their life, to see kids who have only been able to go to school sporadically, small business owners who risk — are risking everything they have. Some are losing their businesses.

    So, first and foremost, the human toll, the loss, the death, beyond that, the economic toll and the psychological and social toll of this pandemic.

  • William Brangham:

    So, let's talk about this issue with regard to vaccine distribution.

    Last week, the HHS secretary, Alex Azar, said that the federal government was going to release all of its reserve doses. These were the doses they had held back, the second shots.

    And then, later in the week, you were told that that actually wasn't going to happen, that the reserve wasn't really there. You referred to this as gross incompetence. You said you had been lied to.

    Help us understand what actually happened.

  • Gov. Jared Polis:

    Well, so, yes, based on the announcement from Secretary Azar, a call with the White House, including Vice President Pence and others, we had expected that there would be a second dose that had been held back that would be given to states expeditiously, immediately, presumably this week.

    Doing the math, that would have come out to about 200,000-plus for Colorado. I was just shocked, a couple days later, it was revealed that, in fact, that was false. There was no national stockpile.

    I mean, however — whatever level of distrust or dislike I might have for the current president, I really thought that the people that were running this would be straightforward with information. So, I don't know why we were lead to believe that. As I said, incompetence is the most likely excuse.

    I don't think it was deliberate sabotage. But I would also add that there is still some question. And I can't — when you look at the statements that Pfizer put out, it seems like some of these reserve doses might, in fact, resist, not in government custody, but, in fact, in the custody of Pfizer itself.

    So, I can't wait until the new administration gets to the bottom of this and gets all available dosage out, so we can put it — and help start protecting people.

  • William Brangham:

    So, I know your goal is to vaccinate 70 percent of 70-year-olds in your state by the end of February. Does this hiccup affect those plans in anyway?

  • Gov. Jared Polis:

    No, we will get that done.

    We were hoping that it would be accelerated significantly. We have about 530,000 people over the age of 70. If we had a week with 200,000-plus vaccines available, we would get upwards of half of the 70-and-up, and we could move on to people 65 and up, teachers and others even sooner.

    The conservative date, a goal that we have by the end of February, 70 percent, is based on our current modeling supply. Any additional supply we get could accelerate that. And I'm really hope that we will find, that the next administration will find additional supply, perhaps at Pfizer, at Moderna, get it shipped out, and get it into people's arms to protect them.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that, in Colorado, you had a very bad fall, November in particular.

    But, currently, your numbers are — seem to be moving in all the right directions, the hospitalizations, the deaths, the case levels. I know you extended your mask mandate statewide now for the ninth time. Do you have a sense as to why you are doing well right now? Why is that?

  • Gov. Jared Polis:

    Well, Coloradans are doing the right thing.

    That means wearing the mask around others. It means avoiding socializing with people outside of their home and trying to keep a distance where they can.

    How well the virus spreads is simply a function of human behavior. We have done our best to help educate Coloradans about what they can do to protect themselves and their family. And when people make the right decisions collectively as a people, it can move us in the right direction.

  • William Brangham:

    Can we shift gears now? I want to ask you a bit about the inauguration.

    Given what we saw happening here in Washington January 6, I know the FBI sent a memo out to all the governors, saying that they — that you all should be on the lookout for armed protests at your own state capitols.

    Is that something that you're worried about? And what kind of precautions are you all taking?

  • Gov. Jared Polis:

    Well, I was proud yesterday morning to go to Buckley Air Force Base, where, Colorado, we sent off 220 of our members of our National Guard to help protect our nation's capital and ensure a peaceful transition of power. And it's our honor to do that as a state. I know other — over 40 states have done so as well.

    We are also, of course, coordinating the protection of our own state Capitol, working with the Denver Police Department and Aurora Police Department, state troopers and others to try to make sure that, while, of course, people are always welcome to express their free speech, that we're able to protect the institution of our republic here in the state, as well as in Washington, D.C.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, I know there was supposed to be a protest yesterday in Denver. And I guess it turned out that more press showed up than protesters.

    Is it your sense that Wednesday is a real concern, or do you think that the aftermath of January 6 has made a lot of these groups at least dial back their plans for big armed protests?

  • Gov. Jared Polis:

    I think the precautions that both the federal government and states are taking absolutely are really sending a message that people will be held accountable for their actions, the fact that the FBI has been actively investigating the failed interaction and takeover the United States Capitol. A number of arrests have been made.

    I am confident that that — now that people know that we, in the states, the federal government is taking this very seriously, that can serve as a major deterrent to this kind of lawlessness and aggressive behavior.

  • William Brangham:

    And lastly, Governor, you're the governor of a purple state.

    I wonder what your sense is of how we go forward as a nation, when so many people have been convinced that this election and this inauguration is a fraud, that they have been fed this lie that somehow this is an invalid election that's been stolen? How do you counsel us generally to go forward with that?

  • Gov. Jared Polis:

    We really do need to come together as a country.

    Look, I'm a Democrat. I wasn't thrilled when Donald Trump was elected. Hillary Clinton got more votes, but Donald Trump won by the rules. He won the Electoral College. He became president. I was a member of Congress. I proudly attended his inauguration and was part of witnessing the peaceful transition of power.

    We don't win — nobody in this country wins every election. Elections don't turn out the way that everybody wants, by the nature of a democracy. But it's a far better system than the alternative, the alternative, ignoring the voice of the people.

    And I think that, by and large, most Americans, Republican, Democrat, independent, really understand that. And I think it's time for us to redouble our dedication to our republic and to our Constitution.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Governor Jared Polis of Colorado, thank you very much for being here.

  • Gov. Jared Polis:

    Thank you.

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