During a somber September 22 press conference about the continuing impact of COVID-19 in Colorado, Governor Jared Polis cited data showing a significant rise in cases, led by infections among college students but including every other demographic. He also referenced national projections showing that Colorado is currently among the top ten states for virus transmission — data he called "alarming."
According to Polis, the current figures are similar to "the warning sign in July," when a spike in cases followed the Independence Day weekend. "We were able to correct course then," he added. "Generally, what we're doing is working. We just need to do it a little better."
The gathering began with a moment of silence to acknowledge the U.S. death toll related to the novel coronavirus, which has surpassed 200,000. Afterward, Polis noted that Colorado had tallied 654 positive cases today, contributing to more than 66,000 in the state overall since March. Cases have risen in twelve of the past fourteen days, he said, with hospitalizations, a lagging metric, bumping up eight days over the previous two weeks.
As Polis pointed out, many of the new cases have occurred within the 18-to-25 demographic. The largest contributors to this total have been students at the University of Colorado Boulder, but he stressed that there have been increases at some other colleges, too.
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Generally, only 1 to 2 percent of those in their late teens and early twenties require hospitalization, Polis acknowledged — but since many students work in food service or retail jobs where they interact with others, they could potentially pass the disease to older people, who are admitted to a medical facility in the 25-to-30 percent range. Thus far, however, there's no evidence of spread in the greater community; the goal is to keep the outbreaks limited to assorted campuses. If that doesn't happen, Polis warned, the risk of greater strain on resources and potential loss of life will climb significantly.
With that in mind, he encouraged young people to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash their hands frequently and avoid attending large events. "If people are careless and go to a college party with 100 people, and the virus goes from one person to eighty people — like it can do because of alcohol and intimate proximity — it's likely that one or two people will be hospitalized," he calculated. "Most will make it out, but it's unpleasant. They could be hospitalized for one or two weeks — even someone in their prime. And that's a big price to pay."
Next up were Lieutenant Governor Dianne Primavera and Adrianne Maddux, executive director of Denver Indian Health and Family Services, who spoke separately about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on native populations. Deaths occur at a much higher rate than among the white, non-Hispanic population, owing in part to the large number of native peoples with serious pre-existing conditions. Both pointed out that health care inequities that predated the pandemic have now become an even greater concern.
Then the spotlight moved to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's Dr. Rachel Herlihy, who documented a general increase in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks: 2 percent in the first, 6 percent in the second, and a 45 percent increase week over week. That's similar to the increase tracked after the Fourth of July, and gatherings connected to the Labor Day holiday could have contributed to the phenomenon, Herlihy acknowledged, though a causal relationship has yet to be established. Hospitalization data has remained fairly steady, as has the state's positivity rate, thanks in part to a sizable increase in testing. But testing itself isn't responsible for the spikes, she said: There's simply more transmission taking place.
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After touting the efforts of the state's eviction prevention task force to make sure people who've suffered economically from COVID-19 remain housed, Polis took journalists' questions, many of them related to the state's announcement about upcoming furloughs. He explained that the state will essentially be closed on the day after Thanksgiving as a cost-saving measure, and while employees making less than $50,000 won't have to take any unpaid days off, those with higher salaries will be furloughed for between one and four days. He called the approach a "compassionate" way to deal with budgetary challenges that will be acute for the rest of 2020 and throughout next year as well.
Along with Herlihy, Polis delayed highly detailed answers to inquiries about Halloween trick-or-treating and the protocol for distributing a vaccine, which, under a best-case scenario, could be available in limited quantities by December, he allowed. They promised more information would be provided in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, Polis dodged an invitation to bash the administration of President Donald Trump for its handling of the pandemic — sort of. "Today, I think, is a day of mourning, a day of reflection, and it's not my role as governor to engage in political punditry," he maintained. "But it's clear America could have done better, and that's not hypothetical. Many other nations have done better. ... America, tragically, is among the top countries in the world for deaths per capita." In his view, "There will be plenty of time for a postmortem to better prepare America for what lies ahead. But there needs to be a science-driven process about how to prepare our nation."
He also warned against a premature victory celebration in regard to the pandemic, particularly in light of the latest figures. "We're past the halfway point," he argued, "but not yet in the final sprint."