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Town Hall meeting with Senator Michael Bennett

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Coronavirus, vaccines, economic crisis, wildfires, and drought review

By Jaclyn Schrock

A phone-in Town Hall meeting was held for all of Colorado to hear what US Senator Michael Bennett and his two panelists voiced. Colorado constituents were heard asking questions in turn. The conference type call was held Friday, December 4th from 3 to 4 pm.

Senator Bennett welcomed callers to the meeting, appreciating that we took time from our day to visit with him. He planned to cover four topics before questions were taken: coronavirus pandemic, economic crisis, devastating wildfire season and severe drought.

Sen. Bennett included for their expertise on these hot topics: Jill Ryan Executive Director Colorado Public Health and Environment (CPHE), who is from Eagle County, and Daniel Chase Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE), Chief of Staff.

Michael initiated the Town Hall meeting by giving a compassionate brief overview of the topics.

Coronavirus

The severity of coronavirus with its social, emotional, financial and physical wellness problems were recognized as being impactful to all people. He spoke of the success with the stimulus package from earlier in the spring. He spoke of the need to continue bipartisan efforts to continue providing needs for the whole population in the United States. He explained he intended to have Jill Ryan speak first about our health concerns and the pandemic.

Economic Crisis

The devastation to small businesses, families and individuals has been the most wide spread result of the pandemic. Michael’s frustration with the efforts to provide federal assistance to states, counties, and unemployed people was clear.

He commended Colorado Gov. Polis’s Dec. 2nd announcement of the CDLE beginning to issue $375 as a one-time stimulus direct payment to over 400,000 Coloradans. $77 million is currently being sent to over 213,000 unemployed Coloradans. To be eligible for the one-time stimulus payment, these would have received between $25 and $500 in weekly unemployment insurance benefits between March 15 and October 24, 2020.

Also, Bennett recognized the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which provides loans up to $10 million for costs incurred from February 15.2020 to June 30.2020, which are forgivable loans. PPP loans are designed for small businesses, which may be used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or business-related utilities.

Devastating Wildfires

Michael was quick to recognize how Colorado has pulled together to support the devastating impact of the 2020 Colorado wildfire season. The local and statewide support of those effected was noteworthy. He mentioned opportunities he had to interact with those on the scenes of these traumatic changes to our state.

Severe Drought

Recognition from the August 6, 2020 US Drought Monitor declaring that 100% of Colorado was abnormally dry and recognized as bring in the worst drought state in the last 8 years, Bennett included this topic of concern. As a headwater state, our lack of water impacts not only Colorado with wildfires, and agriculture challenges, but the other states downstream our water supports.

Michael Bennett asked Jill Ryan, Executive Director of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to explain the states position and the CDPHE responses to COVID-19.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Jill Ryan was thankful for the opportunity to explain Colorado’s red level being at a severe risk level of possibly contracting the coronavirus. Her emphasis was on how novel the COVID-19 or the coronavirus is compared to other infectious diseases.

She explained that when you have a cold, flu or other illness, you have symptoms. Those symptoms make you want to just stay home, often in bed. Even though most communicable diseases spread quickly, often within the first 48 hours of being exposed, until the fever is gone for 24 hours, children are not to go to school.

When we feel sick, we just want to stay home, so we don’t share the disease as easily.

That is what makes COVID-19 so novel. Many people spread the virus without even knowing they have it. They do not get any symptoms, so they do not stay home. They have no idea that they are sharing the virus with others.

We heard the reminders to always use a mask in public, to keeps social distance, wash hands, and stay home as much as possible.

Ms. Ryan reminded us of the symptoms: fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches, sore throat, a new loss of taste or smell, congestion, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea. When we have these symptoms, we want to stay home, and get a COVID-19 test.

The problem is that people who do not have these symptoms, definitely do carry the disease to others, who may or may not also get symptoms and pass it along.

Five days before symptoms begin, should they even begin, Ms. Ryan’ experience with CPHE considers people to be contagious with the COVID-19.

She also said that 40-60% of people who have and pass COVID-19 have no symptoms, so do not take the test.

This is what makes coronavirus so novel. It is so easily passed to others by people who do not even know they have been exposed and have no symptoms.

Now, Ms. Ryan states one in 40 Coloradans are believed to be contagious with COVID-19. According to the Colorado Sun it has been printed referring to Ms. Ryan as the source, that one in forty Coloradans should be considered to be contagious with COVID-19.

In March, Colorado had 1,300 cases, but eight months later we have much more prevalence. Currently with 260,581 positive test Colorado cases, we gained 31,809 cases from November 29 to December 4.

According to John Elflein with Statistics, US COVID-19 cases rated by state; Colorado is ranked 29th in the US for coronavirus cases. As of December 7, statistics show that 4,525 per 100,000 Coloradans test positive.

Jill Ryan said with thousands of COVID-19 patients in Colorado hospitals, it will likely get worse before it gets better, especially with holiday travel and gatherings.

Michael Bennett interjected that “It will get better, with several matters keeping hospitals from becoming overwhelmed in Colorado.”

Ms. Ryan was relieved to announce that on December 3 CPHE ordered the first shipment of vaccines for Colorado. 46,800 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were ordered and hoped to arrive in four to six weeks. The shipment is dependent on the anticipated Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization.

The first vaccines will be given to health care workers and those in congregant settling like senior care facilities and detention facilities. After a couple months, children and pregnant mothers will be the next targeted group to receive the vaccine.

Colorado has successfully completed as of November 25 a simulation to help prepare the State for eventual arrival of a vaccine. Colorado has been one of less than 10 states to participate in the trial of vaccine shipment and ancillary kit to administer the vaccine.

  Senator Bennett then commented on the struggles we all are facing with the pandemic.

He made comments about Congressional bills that have been effective to give support where the US citizens have needs. Bennett believes that the bill from March helped 12 million Americans be kept from poverty.

That March bill was only a bridge to get to July, he said. The next bill did not come together because of Administration complications. “Small businesses are hanging on by fingernails.”

He also commented on the need for bipartisan cooperation to bring more bills to passage to support individuals, families, small businesses, schools, communities, and US states.

Recognizing that we have seven times higher unemployment than in the Great Depression, and that we have lost more jobs during this pandemic than the financial crash of 2008-2009, benefit relief is essential to keeping Americans from poverty.

Senator Bennett recognizes that unemployment benefits are set to expire in a few weeks, at the end of the year.

Failure is not an option. He is pushing the four priorities:

  • Extending unemployment benefits.
  • Keep small businesses intact. Restaurants, services and shops can get 6-10 months of relief with a reset of the bill he co-sponsored in the Senate. Create a bridge to keeps small businesses open, keeping workers in jobs, and people given opportunities to thrive.
  • Make sure there is resurgence for health care support. Keep contact tracing effective to recognize how COVID-19 has been transmitted, use the vaccine, and train 100,000 health care workers. This bill has passed the House of Representatives, and it now needs to pass the Senate.
  • Facilitate support for state and local governments which have all taken a hard hit by the pandemic.

Colorado Department of Labor and Employment

Daniel Chase spoke with compassion of an average 23,000 unemployed claims filed each week in Colorado since March. These are people who have families and need to be able to provide care for them. They are not just numbers.

Unemployment benefits for over one million in Colorado, as well as those in the rest of the US, are scheduled to expire. Last payments will come the week of December 26. The extension, which added funds for an extra 13 weeks for Emergency Unemployment will also end the week of December 26. Our only hope is for Congress to come to an agreement to extend these benefits.

QUESTIONS FROM CALLERS

Question: Connie from Englewood is a retired public-school teacher. She asked, “How do we get on a list to get the vaccine?” She was asking concerned about a 75 year old person living at home.

Answer: Ms. Ryan said this is a good question. There is however, no list. The way to get the vaccine is to keep in contact with your primary care physician. They will likely be able to dispense the vaccine, hopefully in January.

Michael Bennet asked Ms. Ryan which COVID-19 vaccine would be available first?

The Pfizer vaccine will be available first, costing the State $19.50 a dose. The Moderna will be next, costing the State $15.00 a dose.

Both of these require two administrations to be effective. The second shot of the Pfizer vaccine is to be received 28 days after the first dose to be able to avoid contamination of the virus. The second shot of the Moderna vaccine is to be received 21 days after the first shot.

Colorado is also receiving two other COVID-19 vaccines hopefully by March, so that people have choices. These other two vaccine manufacturers only require one dose to be protected from COVID-19 infection. Johnson & Johnson is expected to produce a vaccine which costs the State $10 per dose. AstraZeneca is expected to produce a vaccine which costs the State $4 per dose.

Question: Kevin is an eastern plains hospital CEO. He sought clarity with conflicting information received about the vaccine distribution. He found some information that said it would go to only Walgreens and CVS. His hospital is far from either of those, even though those designated pharmacies would have teams to bring the vaccine to those who are to receive it. Kevin also pointed out that there is plenty of room for COVID-19 patients in his hospital, so other crowded metro hospitals should not be overly stressed before checking with other hospitals.

Answer: He was assured that a more effective system would be used to deliver the vaccine to hospitals far from the common distribution centers.

Question: Elliot of Wheatridge supports undocumented immigrants and works for immigration reform. Elliot asked how can immigrants get support from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Answer: Michael Bennett replied that it is critical how we treat vulnerable neighbors, as we are all included in the effects of the virus. Anyone can get tested and treatment. We all rely on each other. We need to be sure everyone gets support, including preschools and other services for families.

Question: Mary Jane from Montrose asked about the struggles to wait a week for test results.  She also had questions about the PPP program that offers forgivable loans to small businesses. She was struggling to have documentation of the interest on the payroll tax that was not to be taken for Social Security benefits, although business owners have to keep it saved to payback later.

Answer: Jill replied that Colorado tests 60,000 a day and the labs are struggling to keep up, with three shifts a day working 24 hours a day. She hoped the western slopes could hang in there as better technology makes results come more quickly. Hopefully, quicker results from COVID-19 tests can arrive within the month.

Michael replied to the question about Colorado’s PPP program for small businesses. He expressed frustration that our Administration complicated the bill that passed in March for pandemic support. He is hopeful bipartisan cooperation can resolve these complications. There are many confusing issues, and he suggested contacting the State would be the best start for finding answers for her.

Question: Caroline asked if it would be possible to let US Citizens vote on bills in Congress, since there are so many struggles to get bills to the floor and congress to vote on them.

Answer: Senator Bennett stated he is thinking each day how can we make our democracy better. He considers the complications of bills making it inappropriate for citizens to vote on them. That is why the House of Representatives and Senate were established who go to Washington to prepare and vote on bills so the citizens can do their part to keep our country well. Citizens contacting their Senators and Representatives are the best way to influence the voting of bills. Unfortunately, the current US Senate has lost the ability to progress.

Comment: Josh in Lone Tree spoke specifically to Daniel Chase. Josh represents a private group of 25,000 on Facebook who have found no answers to unemployment questions. The  State unemployment workers seem to have conflicting procedures with the many changes.

Josh gave rave reviews of Daniel Chase, calling him a rock star champion. He also found much support and cooperation through a female Colorado Representative who has worked hard to resolve problems for the unemployed, crossing lines of districts and finding answers in a muddy mess.

He spoke of the claim fraud system that has complicated many legitimate claims for unemployment.

Daniel Chase referred to State and Federal laws for IUR and TUR that are pending some resolutions before providing guidance to those who have not been able to get the system to work well for them.

Mr. Chase also is frustrated with the infrastructure of the unemployment system still functioning from 1970’s technology. With 5,000% increase in claims, staffing is a challenge. He is also wondering how to face these problems in 50 years. Currently, he is one of the many who works to review claims and get them processed efficiently.

Question: Alauna from Colorado Springs asked, “How are families to logistically get through the internet demands in a household? She is a single mom with five kids, from college to 4th grade. The youngest also has some special needs. She is trying to work from home. The children all need to get online to do schoolwork. Her first job is to be mom and dad, her second job is to be a teacher for her kids, and she still has to work from home with internet demands to keep money flowing into the house.

Answer: Senator Bennett spoke from his experience as a school superintendent, saying the sooner we can get children into school, the better it will be for them and their learning.

There is a very clear inequity to access the internet. Broadband is not available in many locations, and there are households with no internet. We all need to have support to endure this long process.

We need to work together to rebuild our communities and our infrastructure. Mental health issues are our community responsibility to address and bring support to each one of us.

This reporter knows of a family with three elementary age children with no internet. Their school provided hotspot access that does not work. There are 80 assignments that their grandma, with health issues, is attempting to work through with them at her home this week, without broadband connectivity.

Each of the speakers of the Town Hall meeting sponsored by Michael Bennet thanked participants for attending. The call was ended at 4 pm.

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