Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced this week the state will allow bars to reopen to partial capacity, overnight camps to operate over the summer and indoor events to take place by the end of the week.
But as cases rise rapidly in neighboring Utah and Arizona, Polis and medical professionals on Colorado’s COVID-19 response team are urging people to continue wearing masks and stay 6 feet apart.
“We are just steps ahead of this virus in this marathon, and the minute we let up, it will catch up,” Polis said in a phone interview Tuesday with The Durango Herald.
The incident rate for cases in Colorado has remained low over the past week because Coloradans are continuing to maintain a high level of social distancing, said state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy.
Polis said Colorado cases remain low compared with Utah and Arizona.
“The virus is the same in each state, but people are behaving differently” he said.
Epidemiologists like Herlihy see social distancing on a scale from 0%, or freely mixing, to 100%, or complete isolation.
To avoid exceeding hospital capacity in the state, people in Colorado will need to adhere to at least 65% of social-distancing recommendations, which means wearing masks and staying home when sick, even with a cold, Herlihy said.
However, Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, said people should not be aiming for a particular level of social distancing.
“All of us, and especially those of us who are higher risk, should continue to maximize social distancing,” Jollon said in an email.
Last week, Arizona saw an average of more than 1,300 new COVID-19 cases each day.
Public health officials link the surge to the state lifting its stay-at-home order about a month ago.
“Older adults maintaining high levels of social distancing is critical,” Herlihy said.
Adults older than 60 have made up about half of hospitalizations in Colorado, but they are only 21% of the population. And nine out of 10 deaths as a result of COVID-19 in the state have been people 60 or older.
Even if older adults maintain high levels of social distancing, if everyone else ignores social-distancing restrictions, hospitals could fill up by the summer, Herlihy said.
And the state predicts that by mid-August, when schools reopen, the number of COVID-19 cases will rise.
“In most scenarios, we expect the next peak to be larger than the April peak,” Herlihy said.
Health officials like Herlihy also estimate that about 3% of Colorado’s population, or 173,000 people, have been infected by SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus.
“We have quite a ways to go,” Herlihy said, because a vast majority of Coloradans are still susceptible to the disease.
Until now, Colorado has been under the “safer at home” phase, but the state will soon move into the “protect our neighbors” phase. This phase will allow larger outdoor events of up to 500 people.
But approval for the “protect our neighbors” phase will be on a county-by-county basis.
“The stronger local public health systems are, the more we can reopen,” said Kacey Wulff, senior adviser for Colorado’s COVID-19 response.