With growing outbreaks of COVID-19 in several Colorado counties and a major holiday just 10 days away, Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday pleaded with Coloradans to avoid the kinds of big gatherings typically held to celebrate the nation's birthday.
At a news conference, Polis repeatedly pointed to states like Florida and Arizona which are now seeing record numbers of new cases of COVID-19. He said public health officials in those states are attributing the increases to the Memorial Day holiday 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 Fourth. "A gathering of up to 50 could lead to two dozen people" catching the virus, he said.
The state's trend line for COVID-19 cases has shown signs of creeping up in the past week. That's seen in what's known as the R-naught value, or the average number of people infected by a single COVID-19 case. Once the value exceeds 1, it means that Colorado could see an increase in transmissions.
As of June 17, the state's R-naught value was 0.96. 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 communitywide spread, he said.
"It's incredibly important that when people plan their July Fourth 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 Fourth 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."
Calling Colorado's position "tenuous," state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said the state needs to ensure prevention strategies continue, including washing hands, wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet of distance from others in public.
The new outbreaks also show that the average age of those getting sick is falling. In the past, nine out of 10 deaths due to COVID-19 were 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, as seen in Boulder, where more than 200 young people fell ill in cases linked 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 announced a new visitation policy for people in senior centers, nursing homes and independent living.
Up to now, nonessential 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.
Residents aren't eligible for visits if they are in isolation or quarantine or show symptoms of the virus. Facilities may permit visitors if they have not had an active COVID-19 case in the last 14 days, and aren't subject to a county or city 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 encounter is contagious with COVID-19," he said, "because some of them will be."
People 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."
Polis 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.