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Amber Bowen gets her roots touched up at Honey Salon and Spa in Colorado Springs on Friday, May 1, 2020. El Paso County Public Health wants to residents to step up their adherence to coronavirus prevention measures such as wearing masks, washing hands and limiting social interaction to circles of 10 people to help slow the spread of the virus. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

El Paso County needs to start slowing the spread of COVID-19 or the community could see rules on social gatherings start to tighten up again. 

To mitigate the spread of coronavirus, El Paso County Public Health is focused on encouraging the public to wear face masks, clean surfaces and avoid indoor gatherings where people would be clustered together for long periods of time, among other measures, said Dr. Robin Johnson, agency medical director. The health department is still developing its full mitigation plan to slow the virus and has not submitted it to the state, she said.  

"What we want to do is make these choices locally before there are any mandates that are needed," she said. 

For example, the state could ratchet down how many people can gather at restaurants, gyms, museums, libraries and other venues if the percentage of residents testing positive for the virus and the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks does not come down, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.  

A state variances granted to El Paso County allows 175 residents or 50% of a building's occupancy to gather in all kinds of businesses and destinations, such as restaurants. The overall number of people allowed to gather could come down to 100 or 50 people depending on the level of continued disease spread. If counties aren't diligent about reporting the rise in cases over certain thresholds and the virus continues to spread, a variance could be revoked, the state said. 

Since mid-June, the average number of people testing positive in El Paso County for the virus daily has increased steadily and has surpassed previous highs for average daily new cases set in April and May, according to county data. The 14-day average of residents testing positive was up to 45 people Wednesday an increase from a 14-day average of 13 positive cases per day in June. The data includes those who were directly exposed to others who tested positive for the virus and are experiencing symptoms, which is common practice for all infectious diseases, Johnson said. However public health officials encourage everyone with symptoms to get tested. 

The percentage of people testing positive has also been rising and it is now 6% on average over the last two weeks, up from 3% the first two weeks of June. The trend is concerning because the types of people getting tested has become more random because hospitals are screening people in need of elective procedures such as shoulder surgery for the virus, Johnson said.

"These numbers are real. ... As wearying as it is, as much as we would like it to go away, it’s just not," she said. 

By The Numbers | Coronavirus in Colorado

The number of coronavirus cases rose after Father's Day gatherings and an uptick in summer travel. It is possible they could rise further after Fourth of July gatherings, so it's important the community is more proactive about prevention, said Stephen Goodwin, chief data scientific strategist for El Paso County Public Health. 

The county has two weeks to address the rising trend of cases, according to the state-issued variance. But it's unclear to county health officials if the two-week window has started, Johnson said. The county expects to get clarity about whether the two-week clock has started in the next few days, said Michelle Hewitt, a spokeswoman for the health department. 

In the meantime, county officials are meeting with business leaders, faith leaders and others to talk about prevention efforts that would not require a return to previous closures, Johnson said. If the county is successful at reducing the spread of the virus to a low level, it could apply for the state's Protect Our Neighbors stage of reopening that could allow gatherings of up to 500 people. 

UCHealth is expecting an increased number of COVID-19 patients in need of hospitalization as a result of the rise in cases, but it is too early to tell if it will compare to the spike in hospitalizations seen earlier this year, said Dr. David Steinbruner, associate chief medical officer at UCHealth Memorial.

"Because COVID cases seem to be growing mostly in a younger population, then it is less likely that we will see the high numbers of really sick people that we have seen in other parts of the country," he said in an email. "However, we are concerned that if the number of cases grows rapidly and to a high enough level, that there will be a wave of older and much sicker patients to follow as the virus spreads from the teens and young adults to our more vulnerable population."

The state is also seeing the number of COVID-19 positive cases rise, but has not surpassed the previous high for daily new cases set in April. The state expects the number of cases will continue to increase and the rate of increase will depend on prevention efforts and public health agencies' ability to contact those who have been exposed to the virus so they can quarantine, according to a statement from CDPHE. 

"There is not a specific number of cases that would trigger a return to restrictions; instead, we would look at the overall threat to Coloradans and the capacity of our hospital systems to treat patients," the statement said. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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