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How Coloradans' Odds of Getting COVID-19 Have Changed

Governor Jared Polis getting tested for COVID-19 at Colorado Springs' Citadel Mall earlier this year.
Governor Jared Polis getting tested for COVID-19 at Colorado Springs' Citadel Mall earlier this year.

Although the Colorado stats for COVID-19 are now significantly worse than during the disease's first wave, the positivity rate, a key metric related to the virus's spread, is still well below the peaks of this past spring.

Does that mean the average Coloradan's odds of catching the novel coronavirus are actually lower now than they were during the nascent stages of the pandemic? Not exactly, says Sarah Tuneberg, leader of Colorado's containment and testing team.

"We had deep transmission in the early days," notes Tuneberg, with whom we spoke earlier about Colorado's new cell phone exposure notification system. "Now we have deep and wide."

Such transmission dangers are compounded by what Tuneberg characterizes as the unfortunate politicization of effective public-health policies to fight COVID-19, as well as a tendency to assume that risks are being overblown by those who experience less serious cases of the disease — among them the President of the United States (until January 20, 2021, that is).

The positivity rate is defined by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins as "the percentage of all coronavirus tests performed that are actually positive, or: (positive tests)/(total tests) x 100 percent." As of November 15, Colorado's positivity rate sat at 13.08 percent — after remaining below the World Health Organization-designated red line of 5 percent for months. But that figure is still well under many earlier positivity rates memorialized for the state on the covidactnow.org page. Springtime spikes included a 28.6 percent positivity rate on March 31, 16.7 percent on April 12 and 17.4 percent on April 23.

Unfortunately, these numbers can be misleading. As Tuneberg points out, far fewer tests were being conducted at the outset of COVID-19's rise than is the case today, and the spread was much more localized. "At first we saw high levels of the disease in our resort communities," she notes, "and then it moved into metro areas. But there were many parts of Colorado that didn't have the disease at all."

That's no longer the case. "We now see every county in Colorado with at least one case. So it's now a different sort of paradigm. There's broad community transmission everywhere," she says.

Sarah Tuneberg leads Colorado's coronavirus innovation response team.
Sarah Tuneberg leads Colorado's coronavirus innovation response team.

"This idea of disease transmission — of where we are versus where we were — shows why we're so concerned about where we're going," Tuneberg continues. "We're moving into the holiday season, and we recognize that people are tired and miss their loved ones — and we should never underestimate the sort of physical and mental burdens COVID-19 puts on even individuals who've been healthy the entire time. I want to express this message: Please hang in there. Please avoid gatherings, please wear a mask in public, and please use exposure notifications."

During a November 13 press conference, Governor Jared Polis announced that more than a million Coloradans had enabled the state's new exposure notification system (click to learn more), representing about 17 percent of the state's population — and studies have shown that this amount of buy-in may reduce cases by 8 percent and deaths by 6 percent. But plenty of people have resisted opting in even though the technology doesn't collect any personal information — and Tuneberg understands that ideology is one likely reason why.

"It's disheartening that we're in this spot," she acknowledges. "That's one of the things I think about a lot in regard to everything, but especially COVID-19. And this shouldn't be political. Protective actions are about helping and protecting other people. It's an empathetic gift, mostly to friends and family, but also to strangers."

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She adds: "The evidence about long-term consequences of COVID-19 infection are becoming clearer and clearer. For huge numbers of people, there can be lifelong debilitation. Not as many people are dying as they were, but people have had to have their limbs amputated or are unable to breathe without assistance — including young people. We're seeing athletes that now have a heart condition that essentially prevents them from being able to exert physical energy, and it could last for the rest of their lives. So there are still catastrophic outcomes — and we shouldn't underestimate the disruption for people who get sick, even if they're feeling better two weeks later. For some people, not being able to work for two weeks can be the difference between feeding friends and family and being homeless."

Of course, many of those who've experienced only relatively mild symptoms and apparently escaped worst-case scenarios — including President Donald Trump — have concluded that the novel coronavirus is no big deal. Tuneberg understands this instinct.

"It's human nature to relativize your experience to other people or assume other people's reactions will be like yours," she says. "But one thing we've seen in Colorado, and in other places, is that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color, and they're making very different decisions than middle- and upper-class white people. There's data to indicate that many families of color who are choosing not to send their children back to schools for in-person instruction have had friends and family who've died, and [they] can recognize the severity more than many wealthy white families.

"We do tend to generalize our experiences," she concludes. "But the president had the best health care in the entire nation. He got everything he could. Most of us don't get that, and we should not generalize the president's experience to what our health-care experience may be."

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