If more Coloradans wear masks, it will help reduce the spread of COVID-19, but not by enough to avoid a spike if people don’t stop gathering in crowds, according to projections released this week.
If people continue having face-to-face interactions at the rate they are now, Colorado’s hospitals could see their intensive care units hit full capacity in early September, according to a model from the Colorado School of Public Health.
Even if everyone wore masks in public and older people stayed home at the rates they did during stay-at-home — not likely, since no order is always obeyed and some seniors have jobs — it would only push the potential collision with capacity back about one month if younger people continue interacting at the current rate.
People moving around more is a factor in the increase in Colorado’s COVID-19 infections, though tourists bringing cases to the state and some element of chance could be involved, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said. The model only looks at data through the end of June, so it’s not clear if Independence Day travel or Gov. Jared Polis’s order to close bars earlier this month will change the epidemic’s trajectory.
To head off a spike, the public needs to go back to roughly the level of face-to-face interactions they had in May or early June, said Beth Carlton, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health. If enough people do that, Colorado could avoid hitting capacity in intensive care units, or at least put it off long enough to give hospitals a chance to prepare for a new wave, she said.
On Thursday, Polis announced a two-week moratorium on new exemptions to state social-distancing rules, as well as a statewide mandate to wear masks in indoor public areas.
“There is a small window of opportunity,” he said. “The party has to end.”
Part of the reason that the window is narrow is that changes made today won’t show up in case counts for up to two weeks, because people who got the virus yesterday won’t display symptoms for several days, let alone get sick enough to go to a hospital, Carlton said.
“The big picture is that changing the course of transmission is like navigating an ocean liner,” she said. “You need to plan ahead because it can take a while to turn the ship.”
Julie Lonborg, vice president of communications and media relations for the Colorado Hospital Association, said bed capacity is only one part of the puzzle, and hospitals will need to be flexible in how they use staff and protective equipment like masks if cases continue to rise. There are plans in place to share resources, if necessary, and hospitals that belong to larger systems can ask for help from sister facilities around the country, she said.
So far, the increase in hospitalizations isn’t as steep as it was in March, Lonborg said. Since then, they’ve also learned more about how to care or patients, including that not everyone with low oxygen levels needs a ventilator, she said.
“Hospitals demonstrated in the spring that they are capable of ramping up very quickly, and if necessary, we will do it again,” she said.
As of Friday, three hospitals said they could be short of staff in the next week, one thought it might have a shortage of protective equipment and one anticipated being nearly out of intensive-care beds. But that bed shortage has more to do with a spate of outdoor injuries than with the virus, Lonborg said.
Accelerating growth in cases
Last week, Colorado reported 2,935 new cases. The last time it reported more was the week that ended May 3. Hospitalizations and ventilator usage also are rising, hitting levels last seen in early June.
The percentage of tests coming back positive slowly increased over the course of the week, topping the 5% threshold experts want to see on Wednesday. That means the increase in cases isn’t just due to more testing.
Deaths also appear to have risen for the first time since the second week of April. The state health department reported 23 coronavirus deaths in the week ending Sunday, up from 13 the previous week. Reports are often delayed, making it difficult to be sure a pattern will hold, however.
Cases have been increasing since mid-June, but that growth accelerated in July, Herlihy said. The average number of people infected by each person has reached levels last seen in late March, which will cause rapid growth in cases if nothing changes, she said.
“This path is not a place where we want to be,” she said at a news conference Thursday.
Total cases increased about 30% over the last month, with higher rates for children, teens and adults under 40. Cases are starting to grow among middle-aged adults, however, Herlihy said. Even more concerning, there are signs that more people older than 65, who are at higher risk for complications, are getting the virus, she said.
One possible reason that the demographics have shifted could be that younger people were the first to start going out, caught the virus and then passed it on to middle-aged and older people, Carlton said. Younger people are more likely to have mild symptoms, or none, so they may have unknowingly infected people at higher risk, she said.
White House report
Colorado isn’t one of the worst states for new cases at this point, according to a report prepared for the White House coronavirus task force and made public by the Center for Public Integrity. The state had 45 new cases for every 100,000 people, which is less than half the national average, but both cases and the percentage of tests coming back positive are increasing.
The report identified five Colorado municipalities and metro area as well as 11 counties in the “yellow zone,” meaning cases are rising and people there should keep their in-person interactions to about half of their pre-pandemic level and avoid large crowds.
- Adams County
- Arapahoe County
- Colorado Springs
- Conejos County
- Eagle County
- El Paso County
- Elbert County
- Garfield County
- Glenwood Springs
- Kit Carson County
- Mineral County
- Montrose County
- Prowers County
The White House report, dated July 14, advised Colorado to maintain restrictions on bars and to recruit more contact tracers. It also mistakenly urged the state to maintain its mask mandate, which Polis hadn’t yet enacted when the report was prepared.
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