A recent uptick in Colorado COVID-19 cases driven largely by colleges could lead to the state entering a renewed virus "growth phase," the governor and a state epidemiologist warned Tuesday.
The state has seen a "slight increase" in the number of coronavirus cases and in the percentage of tests that return positive overall, but a "very substantial" increase in virus cases among the college-age population, mirroring a trend being seen nationwide, state health department epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference with Gov. Jared Polis.
State hospital admissions have plateaued, but they often lag behind virus trends. Another reason hospital admissions may not be on the rise: A greater percentage of new cases is occurring in young people, who are more likely to have mild symptoms, Herlihy said.
She added she fears the college-age cases could "spill over into more vulnerable populations, which could potentially see much higher rates of hospitalization."
The state has recorded two weeks of increasing cases among those ages 10-19, and a week of increasing trends among those ages 20-29, Herlihy said.
She presented a graph with a line representing cases among those ages 10-17 at below 25 cases per 100,000 in mid- to late August and dipping lower as of Sept. 6, and lines representing those 18-19 years old and 18-22years old at slightly more than 50 cases per 100,000 in mid- to late August and more than doubling to more than 175 and 125 cases per 100,000 respectively as of Sept. 6.
Six college-related outbreaks were reported to the state last week, Herlihy said, and that number will likely double by the end of the week once investigations are complete. An outbreak is considered two or more cases at one facility within two weeks.
According to a Sept. 9 state spreadsheet, active outbreaks existed at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, a Colorado State University fraternity in Larmier County, and a fraternity in Boulder. Five additional college- or university-related outbreaks were listed as resolved.
The University of Colorado-Boulder is considered a hot spot. Chancellor Phil DiStefano urged students, faculty and staff in a Monday letter to wear face masks, social distance and avoid crowds of more 10 people to stem the surge. University officials reported 13 positive tests the first week of school, 90 the second week and 205 the third week, DiStefano said. Nearly 30% of confirmed cases are on-campus residents; the remainder live off campus, he said.
Earlier this month, Colorado College officials said they were moving most classes online for the rest of the fall semester after hundreds of students went into quarantine because at least 10 had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
COVID-19 is now spreading in Colorado, on average, to more than one person from each infected person, state officials reported. It had been spreading to less than one person, on average, from July through mid August, Herlihy said, adding that social-distancing in the state is estimated to be down approximately 10-15% from several weeks ago.
"These are concerning trends," Polis said, but "not terribly surprising, given Labor Day and colleges resuming."
The practice of quarantining affected dormitories instead of instituting across-the-board quarantines, is the correct approach, Polis said.
"We are all tired of the virus, but the virus is not tired of us," he warned. "It's still there, and the minute we give in to the lifestyle that allows it to expand, it will, so we have to continue to be smart, cautious, really go about our lives in a careful way."
After reading a Facebook comment from an individual who accused Polis of encouraging residents to get tested so he could keep "locking down the state," referencing those who heeded the call as "slaves," Polis cautioned Coloradans against flippant attitudes.
"We will do more poorly and more Coloradans will die" if residents have such attitudes, he said. "We are going to do as well as you want us to do in this, Colorado. It's in your hands."
In related news:
- Polis announced the introduction of a virus "dial dashboard" that tracks the progress of counties by color, similar to fire-danger signs.
The dashboard, available at covid19.colorado.gov/covid-19-dial-dashboard, shows Moffat, Rio Blanco, Mesa and Gunnison counties colored green, having achieved the "Protect Our Neighbors" phase of restrictions, the least restrictive under the framework established by the Polis administration. Counties that qualify for "Safer at Home," shaded blue, yellow and orange, comprise the rest of the map.
El Paso and all surrounding counties are shaded blue, or "Safer Level 1," fairing the best among counties under such a category. The lone exception to surrounding counties is Pueblo County, which is shaded yellow, for "Safer Level 2." Counties are assigned a color based on number of new cases, percent of positive tests, and hospitalizations. A county can move "up" in color if it achieves certain benchmarks for two weeks, and will have two weeks to regain compliance if it falls out. The framework will replace variances in most cases, Polis said.
- More than 62,000 positive cases of coronavirus were reported in the state as of Tuesday, with 400 new positive cases that day, and a total of 1,905 deaths because of the virus, Polis said. New cases had been down six of the past 14 days, and hospitalizations had been down 8 in that time. The state is "well within hospital capacity," he added.
- "Modest therapeutic progress" has been made the past few months, Polis said, referring to the antiviral Remdesivir and convalescent plasma treatment, in which patients with the virus are given plasma from an individual who has recovered and developed antibodies. Such treatments "are not game changers," he cautioned, but there is "strong evidence they're helpful" in reducing hospital time and deaths from the virus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.