Colorado's social distancing policies have stemmed the spread of COVID-19, but indicators show progress slowing as the state moves further into a relaxed safer-at-home phase.
Hospitalizations have been declining since mid-April, but the rate of decline is slowing, according to a May 29 report by Colorado public health scientists.
Meanwhile, the disease's reproductive number — sometimes written “R0” — had fallen from about four in March to below one, but in early May, it ticked back up toward one, according to the report. That's the average number of infections generated by each COVID-19 case — meaning if the reproductive number sits below one, the number of new cases per day is declining.
The report projects that hospital capacity could be exceeded in coming months if social distancing is loosened too much — mask-wearing needs to be maintained and case detection and isolation should be gradually increased, the report says.
“In all scenarios, the epidemic curve is rising … at Aug. 15, the time that schools, colleges and universities begin to open,” the report says. The curve is projected to rise before and after that point.
Intensive-care unit capacity in Colorado could be reached somewhere between July 18 and Sept. 10, roughly, if social distancing is relaxed too much, the report says.
The report's model does not yet incorporate the effect of contact tracing, it says.
One of public health officials' goals is to prevent having to return to a stay-at-home order, the June 1 presentation to reporters said. That's a possibility officials have repeatedly acknowledged.
Gov. Jared Polis announced on June 2 a partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service, which will mobilize more than 800 AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members to support the state's COVID-19 response through contact tracing and other associated work, according to a governor's office news release.
“With more than 1,000 contact tracers working in Colorado, the state will be able to address outbreaks more quickly, which will reduce infections and save lives,” the release said.
-- Ellis Arnold
Continuing to strike a balance between public safety and returning to normalcy, Colorado officials have released plans to loosen restrictions on places of worship, organized recreational sports, pools and playgrounds. Under the changes, gyms can reopen to more patrons.
The updates to the state's “safer at home” phase of social distancing come as COVID-19's "reproductive number" — how contagious the disease is in Colorado — has ticked up after months of decline, and the second peak of the virus' spread may be worse than the first.
“In most scenarios, we project the next peak in infections will be greater than the prior peak in April,” public health scientists led by the Colorado School of Public Health wrote in a May 29 report.
A June 1 extension of the safer-at-home order — announced in an executive order titled “Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors” — lasts through June but could be extended further.
The state Department of Public Health and Environment released draft guidance for houses of worship, outdoor and personal recreation, and some other items. Coloradans were able to give feedback until noon June 3 online, and the changes went into effect June 4.
Here's a look at how restrictions have loosened, according to the guidance.
Houses of worship can welcome groups larger than 10 people under the new directives, which allow for a maximum of 50% capacity or up to 50 people per room, according to the state public-health department.
Seating should be arranged to maintain at least 6 feet in every direction between individuals or parties. A “party” includes members of a household who live together, the guidance says. Outdoors, groups from different households also can worship at least 6 feet apart.
The state strongly recommends that speakers and singers move much further back —about 25 feet — than others to maximize distance between them and the front row of attendees. Choirs should not be used at this time, given the strong risk of viral spread from singing, the state recommends.
The state plans to “continually review” the guidelines and welcomed feedback in a survey by June 12.
Outdoor recreation could see a laundry list of changes in time for summer: Playgrounds can be open for up to 10 people at a time, and outdoor sport facilities such as tennis and basketball courts, and fields, can open for up to 25 people at a time per court or field.
Outdoor pools also can open, with up to 50% capacity or up to 50 people, whichever is fewer.
“It is strongly encouraged to limit pool activity to lap swim,” the guidance says. “If you permit open swim, make efforts to reduce in-pool interactions.”
Indoor gyms, recreation centers and pools can hold up to 25% capacity, or 50 people — whichever is fewer — per room, as long as people can stay 6 feet apart. Pools are limited to 25% capacity or up to 50 people.
Use of any shared equipment is discouraged, and facilities must ensure all equipment is cleaned and disinfected between each use.
Before the June 4 update, gyms had to remain closed except for personal training and classes indoors, which were limited to members of a single household or a mixed group of four or fewer.
Public health orders — such as the safer-at-home order — generally issue requirements that Coloradans must follow, and the health department’s guidance provides instructions for how businesses and Coloradans can comply with the orders, according to the department. But some guidelines are only "strongly recommended."
The full list of requirements for all types of spaces, with specific social distancing rules, are located here.
Perhaps the largest change is for organized recreational sports: Youth and adult recreational leagues for groups of up to 25 players, excluding coaches, referees and umpires, are allowed.
Gov. Jared Polis acknowledged the risk in allowing such large groups at a June 2 news conference, speaking about the protocol for when COVID-19 cases would occur in players.
“I'm using the word 'when,' not 'if,' because there are so many” organized sporting groups in Colorado, Polis said.
But he expressed more confidence in allowing organized groups of that size rather than large groups for pickup sports. Contact tracing — where public health workers notify people that they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 — isn't possible with “random social groups” as opposed to leagues, the governor said.
Spectators are “strongly discouraged” for adult sports, the guidance says. Spectators, like parents, are allowed for youth sports, as long as members from different households maintain at least 6 feet of distrance from each other.
Teams must maintain contact information and rosters and be prepared to support local contact tracing efforts if exposures occur, the guidance says.
“Consider participating in low or no-contact sports like baseball, cross country, or cycling instead of high-contact sports like wrestling or soccer,” the guidance says.
Under the prior safer-at-home order, Coloradans at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 were urged to stay at home at all times except to seek medical care.
The state public-health department now asks older adults — those 65 and older — and others, such as those with underlying health conditions, to stay at home except to perform necessary activities or for outdoor recreation, according to a June 1 presentation to reporters.
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