El Paso County could see an acceleration of COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks, as the state experiences a "stubborn" plateau in the continuing pandemic, health officials cautioned.
And the jump comes as the county is preparing to take over more control of pandemic-related restrictions by mid-April.
Increased indoor seating at restaurants, returns to in-person learning, more people traveling for spring break and the highest numbers of confirmed cases of two highly infectious variant strains of COVID-19 in the state are all indicators that the epidemic has “accelerated considerably” in El Paso County, said Dr. Phoebe Lostroh, a Colorado College professor who has a Ph.D. in microbiology from Harvard University.
“This is a recipe for spreading the virus,” she said.
On Monday the percentage of positive results among those tested in El Paso County had reached 7.45%, the highest it has been since late January, El Paso County Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Hewitt said. The percentage is well above the 5% positivity recommended by the World Health Organization for reopening.
Additionally, the average number of daily cases in the past seven days is 204.6 per 100,000 people, county data show, a number that has steadily climbed each day since March 30, when it was 162.8 per 100,000 people.
Teller County is experiencing the same upturn in cases, county officials announced. Last week, officials tightened restrictions in response to rising case numbers and positivity rates. As of Monday, the percentage of positive results among those tested in Teller County was 10.3%, according to state health department data.
“With COVID-19 numbers increasing as well as variant cases circulating our community, it highlights how critical it is to vaccinate as many people as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Hewitt said.
Statewide, the rate of positive tests is at its highest point since January, new state data show.
State data tracks three different measures of the positive test rate: a seven-day average, three average and a daily rate, which can fluctuate significantly. The latest data on all three metrics show the highest point since the beginning of the year. On Sunday, 7.6% of tests statewide were positive — the highest single-day rate since Jan. 5. The three-day and seven-day averages are higher than they've been since mid-January.
But the demographics have changed with younger people getting sick.
The state’s vaccine rollout strategy was intentionally designed to protect the elderly and those most at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, Hewitt said, and early data indicate the strategy is working.
In March, El Paso County’s death rate per 1,000 cases was the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic and hospitalizations among residents 60 and older has decreased since vaccine efforts ramped up, she said. But hospitalizations among those between the ages of 20 and 59 are increasing, she said.
Teller County reported 20 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and only three were in people older than 60, according to a county news release. No new cases were reported in Teller County residents older than 66, the release noted.
“This is why it’s so critical that our younger age groups get vaccinated since they recently became eligible last Friday,” Hewitt said.
Lostroh said there is some evidence younger people are more likely to be infected with the B.1.1.7 variant discovered in Britain, but other experts say it is somewhat uncertain whether the variants have an increased effect on younger people compared with older residents.
Older people have been vaccinated at high rates and that's part of the reason why more younger people are more likely to be hospitalized now, said Dr. Glen Mays, professor and chairman of the Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy at the Colorado School of Public Health. The unequal rate of vaccination makes it difficult to determine how much of a role the variants are playing in sickening younger people, he said.
“It could be that younger populations are more likely to work in jobs in which they have increased exposure to COVID-19 and the associated variants, and/or if they are experiencing COVID fatigue, making them less likely to exercise the recommended precautions,” added Jessica Bralish, the state health department’s director of communications. “In addition, because many older adults are now being vaccinated, they are more likely to be protected against variants than other younger populations.”
The increases and demographic changes come as Gov. Jared Polis and the state are preparing to give greater control to local public health agencies to set capacity restrictions at restaurants and other businesses. The handoff is expected by mid-April.
El Paso County Public Health will continue working closely with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Polis’ office, county commissioners and other local partners to monitor local disease levels and implement a response, Hewitt said.
“The final details of what local control means have not been finalized,” she said, adding the health department has “used science and data to guide decision-making throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so.”
El Paso County commissioners have for months urged Polis to relinquish more control of COVID-19 restrictions to counties and have openly supported loosening restrictions. Commissioners said in a written statement Monday they want to see occupancy limits removed, allowing businesses to operate at higher capacities.
Commissioners will look to Public Health for “data-driven recommendations that make sense for our community,” they said. But rising cases alone would not be the sole driver of decisions, county spokeswoman Natalie Sosa said.
Lifting COVID-19 restrictions while the number of people testing positive is rising and how quickly the virus is changing would come with some risk, Lostroh said.
“We are in a race with evolution and it’s pretty difficult to get ahead of evolution if we engage in behavior that will inevitably spread the virus,” she said.
Keeping restrictions in place, such as maintaining lower occupancy limits, depends in part on what officials are trying to achieve. If the goal was to protect hospitals from getting overrun, that danger of running out of ICU bed space and facilities is behind us, Mays said. However, the regulations can also minimize who gets hurt by the virus, he said.
“We might have to tolerate a larger amount of disease burden and more people with severe and long-term effects of COVID,” Mays said.
County decisions could create some confusion among residents, Mays said. Any lifting of restrictions has “the potential to send the message that maybe these regulations aren't that important,” he said.
Public Health officials continue encouraging El Paso County residents to practice prevention measures such wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands and staying home when sick to minimize the disease's continued spread.
“The earlier we can curb an increase (in the number of cases), the shorter the amount of time it will take us to descend to lower levels” of restrictions, Hewitt said.
The Gazette's Seth Klamann contributed to this report.