Gov. Jared Polis Tuesday had a little good news to share during a news conference on the status of COVID-19 efforts in Colorado: the number of cases and hospitalizations tied to the virus has possibly plateaued.
Polis attributed the decline — reflected by a lower rate of infection, announced by state public health officials last Friday — to the state mask mandate and an executive order making last call for alcohol at restaurants at 10 p.m.
But only 20% of the state's success in combating COVID-19 depends on these policies, Polis said. The other 80% is individual responsibility and behavior.
As reported by the Gazette on Aug. 1, the rate at which COVID-19 is being spread in Colorado has dropped by nearly half in the past few weeks. State health officials reported last Friday that the average number of people who will catch the disease from a single infected person — known as the reproductive rate or "R-naught" — was down to 1 on Friday, meaning the disease had essentially been halted for the time being.
In mid-July the reproductive rate was at 1.8, which had Polis and health officials scrambling for new initiatives to contain the virus. The result? The mask order on July 16, although a quarter of the county sheriffs in Colorado have said they will not enforce that order or the public health order attached to it. Most have called it a civil matter and not one that could prompt a criminal charge.
According to an analysis by the investigative team at The Gazette, the number of new daily cases of coronavirus in Colorado reported by CDPHE has been on the decline in the past week, after rising since mid-June.
The number of new cases reported by the state hit a new high of 608 cases on July 28, topping the earlier peak of 575 from April 30. The six-week rise in new COVID-19 cases practically mirrored the preceding six weeks of declining cases.
But hospitalization data provided by the state shows the recent rise in cases did not coincide with an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the same way that case numbers in March and April did.
During the first spike in COVID-19 cases in Colorado, a group of University of Colorado researchers working with the state estimated, as of the first week of April, that only 27.7% of cases were tracked in the state’s data. The estimate has risen since then, reaching 33% by late April. And as of early July, the same group of researchers estimated that 40% of cases were being tracked by the state. The same group estimates that around half of cases are asymptomatic, in which a person with a COVID-19 infection does not present symptoms.
There's still the potential that the infection rate could bounce up again. A rodeo/concert in Weld County on July 26 drew an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people, none were required nor were there few who voluntarily wore masks or socially distanced. It was the largest known event in Colorado since the pandemic began.
Those attending the event were largely young and Latino/a. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on July 24 that nationwide, Latinos in the 18-49 age group are hospitalized from the virus at more than double the rate of white Americans.
Polis called the event a "dangerous superspreader activity" and noted that the Attorney General had sent the promoter a cease-and-desist letter. It's not about a person being a superspreader, the governor said. "The event is a superspreader... . It's guaranteed that an event with 5,000 people will have several who are contagious."
He also warned people about buying tickets to large events that could be canceled or otherwise shut down.
"I don't want Coloradans scammed out of their money," he said.
Polis said he would be holding a virtual town hall with the Spanish-language TV station Univision later Tuesday. In addition, the governor said he is redoubling state efforts on Spanish language outreach, both on TV and radio. His office also recently launched a new Facebook page and Twitter account, both entirely in Spanish, to reach the Spanish-speaking community.
But to those young people who attended the July 26 rodeo and concert, Polis said a 24-year old who goes out to party isn't just taking a risk for themselves; their decision affects parents, neighbors, grandparents and friends.
Large events, like that in Weld County, can lead to community spread of the virus. "Every decision we make reflects on our character and morals," the governor added. "Every Coloradan is empowered to make their own decisions, but it is not your right to put others at risk."
Polis repeatedly said that given the improvements in the rate of infection, due to the new state policies, that Coloradans should be prepared to continue under those orders for the next several months, signaling that the mask and last-call orders are unlikely to end anytime soon. The state is being challenged over the last-call order by the Tavern League of Colorado, which has said they intend to take the lawsuit to trial.
"There's no path that we've seen to eliminating the virus in Colorado," in contrast to other countries such as New Zealand and South Korea. "We have succeeded as long as people live this way."
The governor also responded to a question on an increase in mill levies for oil and gas operations announced today by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. He said operators want a quick turnaround on permits, so the COGCC needs to have the staff to process those applications. Absent general fund revenues and funding from other sources (such as severance taxes), the increased mill levy will help ensure a quicker response on permits.