COVID-19: Testing, Odds of Getting Virus on Memorial Day Weekend

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was joined at the May 21 press conference at the Pepsi Center by Colorado Governor Jared Polis.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was joined at the May 21 press conference at the Pepsi Center by Colorado Governor Jared Polis. City of Denver
At a Mayor Michael Hancock-hosted May 21 press conference to preview the state's largest COVID-19 testing site, which will debut tomorrow, May 22, at the Pepsi Center, Governor Jared Polis, one of many guests at the event, again pleaded with Coloradans not to celebrate the upcoming Memorial Day weekend in large groups. Polis also outlined how risks of infection can increase with the size of the gathering.

According to Polis, who referenced a recent conversation with the state's top epidemiologist, "about one in 300 Coloradans are contagious with COVID-19 right now. So if you're in a group of 100 people, there's a one in three chance someone had COVID-19. That one case can become twenty or thirty cases, and each of those cases could lead to more."

Should many gatherings of this size or larger take place over the holiday weekend, Polis continued, "we would move backwards and hospitals would fill up more. So let's be smart. If you're out in a group of eight or nine people and someone has COVID-19, it might only be three people who get it instead of thirty people."

Before that admonition from Polis, Hancock explained that because the federal government has largely dropped the ball on testing, "states and cities have stepped into the breach to get this done." To that end, Denver has deployed approximately $5 million in funds it received from the CARES Act (including $3.5 million spent directly on the Pepsi Center site) to increase testing capacity to 1,000 per day citywide. Of that number, 500 nasal swab tests are expected to be conducted daily at the Pepsi Center, and should demand be great enough, the total could be doubled without exceeding capacity.

Hancock encouraged Denver residents as well as those who live in other parts of the metro area and have one or more symptoms of COVID-19 to visit or dial 311 to register for a test. He emphasized that no questions will be asked about immigration status or the like, and there's no cost to individuals — and since people will be conducting the test themselves, by inserting a nasal swab into their own noses rather than having a medical professional do so, the process should only take around fifteen or twenty minutes, and results will likely be back within three days.

During his first trip to the podium, Polis congratulated Hancock and his administration for launching the testing site, one of more than thirty currently operating across the state. "What people should know is, it's quick, easy and free," the governor said.

At that point, Polis pivoted to Memorial Day, reminding Coloradans that "about half the people with COVID-19 don't have symptoms. They don't know they have it. They're not deliberately affecting others, but we have thousands of COVID-19 Marys among us" — a reference to Typhoid Mary, the name given to an asymptomatic typhoid character from the early 1900s.

He added, "It's a mystery to scientists what leads to such different clinical manifestations of COVID-19, ranging from completely asymptomatic to deadly pneumonia and organ failure." With that in mind, he encouraged Coloradans to celebrate Memorial Day with small gatherings such as a barbecue for ten or fewer people, to "avoid Colorado reversing the successful path we've been on."

After noting that the partnership between the State of Colorado and Colorado State University to test asymptomatic workers and residents at nursing facilities has now been formalized (testing at thirty centers of this type will take place over the next eight weeks), Polis ceded the spotlight to Hancock, who quickly passed it to new Denver Manager of Public Safety Murphy Robinson, the point person on the Pepsi Center project. Robinson confirmed that testing will be available at the site from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, and stressed that the personally administered nasal swab test is less invasive than the kind with which many are familiar. "Guess what?" he said. "They don't even stick it all the way up your head. You rub the Q-tip around yourself."

Shortly thereafter, Hancock invited questions from journalists. Both he and Polis insisted that the amount of COVID-19 testing that the city and state are now capable of conducting meets standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and the governor managed to dodge a followup about Colorado's testing pace being lower than that of many other states.

As for Robinson, he said first responders and other front-line workers can get multiple tests, though they're asked to wait at least seven days between each. But he also admitted that he doesn't know precisely what Denver's future steps will be in terms of the battle against the novel coronavirus. In his words, "I think everyone will understand that COVID-19 is a constantly moving target. We're learning more and more every hour about this disease, but what's next is to be determined."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts