Colorado officials warn COVID-19 could surge again

Governor cautions against large crowds on Fourth of July

Ellis Arnold
Posted 6/26/20

Pointing to worrying COVID-19 trends in neighboring states and an outbreak of cases following Boulder college-area parties, Gov. Jared Polis implored Coloradans to take caution with a baseball …

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Colorado officials warn COVID-19 could surge again

Governor cautions against large crowds on Fourth of July


Pointing to worrying COVID-19 trends in neighboring states and an outbreak of cases following Boulder college-area parties, Gov. Jared Polis implored Coloradans to take caution with a baseball metaphor.

“Our ability to open schools, our ability to keep our economy going, really relies on people making the right choices. So far you have! So far you have,” Polis said at a June 18 news conference. “As I said, we're one run up, you know? We're still in the fifth or sixth inning here — we're one run up. But yes, the bases are loaded.”

In the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Colorado has “runners on base in Utah and Arizona,” where the virus' spread has turned more dire, Polis said.

“It really depends on our behavior here in the next few weeks and months,” the governor added.

Polis' uncharacteristically worried tone found more support in data later at a June 24 news conference, when he highlighted outbreaks around the state.

In roughly one week in June alone, Boulder County saw more than 100 new cases, largely linked to graduating college seniors — and Polis warned the situation could balloon if Coloradans don't wear masks and take caution in public.

“We are starting to see new outbreaks in different parts of the state: San Luis Valley, El Paso County, Boulder County, San Miguel County. We're also watching Eagle County very closely,” Polis said, adding that “all of our gains could be reversed very quickly if we're not careful.”

The same day as Polis' news conference, state officials said that 324 additional people had tested positive for coronavirus in Colorado, the biggest one-day total since May.

A key test for the state will be how Coloradans handle the Fourth of July, and Polis emphasized the importance of treating it differently than many Americans approached Memorial Day weekend.

“We don't want our Fourth of July holiday in Colorado to be what Memorial Day weekend was in Arizona and Florida and lead to a renewed round of 20 times the level of virus, where you get to the point where it could be overwhelming our health care facilities,” Polis said June 24.

More young people infected

The governor brought in Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, to explain the changing trends in the virus' spread. Since Colorado's COVID-19 peak in mid-to-late April, officials have seen a steady decline in hospitalizations, deaths and cases, Herlihy said.

But after the week of June 7 — which saw the lowest number of cases in months — the week of June 14 showed an uptick, Herlihy said.

And the disease's reproductive number — sometimes written “R0” and pronounced “R naught” — has risen dangerously close to where Colorado's progress would reverse. The number represents the average infections generated by each COVID-19 case, meaning if the number sits below one, the number of new cases per day is declining.

The reproductive number had fallen from about four in March to below one, but now, it sits at about 0.96, Herlihy said on June 24. That means the virus' spread could soon ramp up again.

The lion's share of COVID-19 deaths has occurred among older Coloradans, but since the peak, the average age of Colorado's cases has declined — which means the disease is spreading in younger populations, Herlihy said.

“For people that are in their 70s, almost half will need to be hospitalized who contract this virus,” Polis said. “For people in their 20s, it's still about 1 in 15 to 1 in 20 that need to be hospitalized.”

Moreover, Polis asked 20-somethings living with parents in their 60s: “Are you also willing to have that 1-in-3 chance that your parents will be hospitalized?”

Protests' impact

Polis supported the motivation behind recent Denver-area protests — a reaction to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked nationwide unrest — but he worried about their effect on the virus' spread. Demonstrations continued throughout the Denver metro area for weeks, bringing thousands in close contact.

“Health experts tell me (the protests) could result in hundreds of new cases,” Polis said in a June 2 news conference.

Polis didn't characterize the protests as playing a large role in Colorado's June outbreaks, saying “there's some evidence that” some of the people involved in the Boulder outbreak attended marches.

“We don't necessarily have that same information from Denver,” Polis said June 24. “We believe it was associated with large get-togethers and parties.”

For some areas, a turning point

The outbreaks come at a critical juncture for the state as it nears its third phase of social distancing policy, which officials dubbed “protect our neighbors.” The first two phases were the stay-at-home and current safer-at-home orders.

Under the “protect our neighbors” phase, some parts of the state could allow “all activities to occur” at 50% capacity, with up to 500 people in one setting and at least 6 feet between non-household members, according to information the state has released about how the rules could shape up. The phase could be implemented in some counties by around early July, Polis has said.

Over time, that 50% threshold could even be increased if COVID-19's spread doesn't worsen in a region, Polis has said.

To enter the phase, according to a draft framework, communities must meet scientifically established thresholds of:

• Low disease-transmission levels.

• Local public health agency capacity for testing, contact tracing and outbreak response.

• Hospital ability to meet needs of all patients and handle the surge in demand for intensive hospital care.

When questioned about whether the state should continue to relax its restrictions, Polis has emphasized that not all parts of Colorado will move to the new phase at once.

“If Boulder were to fail to contain the virus at the student level” and it spread, “that community would likely need to take additional steps before it expanded to additional communities,” Polis said June 18.

The “protect our neighbors” phase puts a large focus on local public health agencies' preparedness to handle outbreaks.

“We are in regular contact with every county health department,” Polis said.

Earlier in June, Polis pointed to a likely “second wave” of the virus' spread in the fall, according to the state's modeling. The flu season's overlap with the pandemic is expected to impact hospital bed capacity, the governor has said.


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