With growing outbreaks of COVID-19 in several Colorado counties and a major holiday just 10 days away, Gov. Jared Polis Wednesday pleaded with Coloradans to avoid the kinds of big gatherings that typically help celebrate the nation's birthday.
In a Wednesday news conference, Polis repeatedly pointed to states like Florida and Arizona, which are now seeing record numbers of new cases of COVID-19, which he said public health officials in those states are attributing to the Memorial Day weekend.
The state's current "Safer at Home" order allows for gatherings of 50 people or less, but Polis asked people not to gather in groups of that size for July 4th. "A gathering of up to 50 could lead to two dozen people" catching the virus, he said.
The state's trendline for COVID-19 cases has shown signs of creeping up in the past week. That's indicated by what's known as the "R naught" value, expressed as "R0." An R value of less than one means that one person would infect fewer than one other person. When it climbs above one, that becomes a concern, both for the number of cases and for the impact on hospital capacity.
As of June 17, the R value was 0.96, perilously close.
Polis cited new outbreaks in the San Luis Valley, Boulder, Eagle, San Miguel and El Paso counties as cause for concern. Any one of these outbreaks could lead to a community-wide spread, he said.
"It's incredibly important that when people plan their July 4th events that if you're asked to be part of a big event, just say no. Do it next year," he asked. "We don't want the 4th of July holiday to be what Memorial Day weekend was in Arizona or Florida," and which led to a renewed round of cases that could overwhelm health facilities in those states.
"We are only a couple of steps ahead of the virus."
Polis brought in state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy to talk about the trends. "We're at a place that is a bit tenuous," she explained. That means the state needs to ensure strategies continue, such as washing hands, wearing masks and maintaining six feet of distance from others in public.
The new outbreaks also show that the average age of those getting sick is getting younger. In the past, nine out of 10 deaths due to COVID-19 affected older Coloradans, as well as half of the hospitalizations, she said.
Older Coloradans have done a good job of practicing social distancing, but the trend now is that younger Coloradans are catching the virus, such as the outbreak of more than 200 in Boulder, tied to parties on The Hill.
Herlihy called that a "good" sign, given that younger people who catch the virus don't get nearly as sick.
But that doesn't mean they won't end up in a hospital. Polis said one in 15 or one in 20 young people who catch COVID-19 will require hospitalization.
He also asked that young people consider who they live or work with, such as parents, grandparents and others.
The governor also announced a new visitation policy for people in senior centers, nursing homes and independent living.
Up to now, non-essential visitors have largely been barred from visiting loved ones in those facilities.
New state guidelines will allow outdoor visitation, contingent on temperature checks, scheduling those visits in advance, and wearing face coverings.
Some facilities may have stricter policies on visitation than others, Polis advised.
The other caveats: the resident can't be in isolation or quarantine or show symptoms of the virus, and the facility has not had an active COVID-19 case in the last 14 days or that the county or city where the facility is located is under a Stay-At-Home order.
As of June 22, the state had recorded 333 outbreaks, defined as two cases or more, at senior facilities as well as grocery stores, meatpacking plants and correctional facilities. Of those 333, more than 170 are at nursing homes, independent living centers, group homes and rehab facilities.
Polis demurred on the topic of taking additional steps in light of the new outbreaks, citing individual responsibility. "You want to act like everyone you enounter is contagious with COVID-19," he said, "because some of them will be."
Citizens need to embrace a mask-wearing culture, which he called a sign of "supporting our freedom...the more we wear masks and social distance, the sooner we can return to a degree of normalcy."
He also dismissed any possibility of fans returning to professional sporting events anytime soon. He said he hasn't been asked by the major sports teams about allowing fans back into events. "I don't think that's in the works," he said.