Transmission of the novel coronavirus is so rampant in Colorado that local public health officials are asking the state to take more aggressive steps — including county-level stay-at-home orders — to control the spread.
State officials are reluctant to issue another statewide lockdown, preferring local governments to take the lead as Colorado continues to see a record number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“Local public health agencies can enact guidance that is stricter than the (state’s color-coded) dial, and the do not need the state’s approval to do that,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a statement Tuesday. “They have always had the ability to go to a traditional stay-at-home model, and we are here to support them in that decision.”
Last week, eight local public health directors and the Colorado Association of Public Health Officials sent a letter — which was first reported by Colorado Public Radio — to the state health agency, asking it to follow the timeline laid out in the color-coded dial system that places each county into one of five levels.
“While we appreciate the latitude in additional timing that CDPHE has provided to counties whose metrics exceed their level on the dial, we are concerned that with the steep acceleration of cases and hospitalizations, these delays will reduce the value of the additional restrictions provided in the higher level, essentially rendering them ‘too little, too late,’” the health officials wrote in the Nov. 5 letter.
The letter is signed by public health directors from Jefferson, Broomfield, Denver, Boulder, Lincoln and Kiowa counties. The head of the Tri-County Health Department, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, also signed it.
In the dial frame work, a county is assigned a level based on new cases, the percentage of tests that are positive and how hospitalizations are trending.
In recent weeks, a flurry of counties, including Denver, Boulder, Broomfield, Adams and Jefferson, have moved to level orange, the second-highest set of restrictions, which cap most businesses’ capacity at 25%.
In an effort to stave off the red level, which brings a stay-at-home order, some local governments, including Denver, have also imposed curfews.
But as counties have surpassed the threshold for level red, they have not yet been moved to the most severe restriction on the dial: a lockdown.
“None of us want to get into that red zone,” said Margaret Huffman, the director of Jefferson County Public Health.
As cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, steps need to be taken to protect residents and health care workers, she said.
“That does mean at times for the state to step in and suggest we do XYZ to reach that goal because the state has that authority,” Huffman said.
Colorado reported 3,384 new cases of the novel coronavirus Tuesday. Hospitalizations continued to reach record levels Tuesday, with 1,116 people in the hospital statewide with confirmed COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health and Environment.
While 84% of the state’s intensive-care unit beds are in use, another serious threat to hospital capacity is staffing.
“Our hospital workers are getting sick because they are going to the grocery store, they are going to school to pick up their kids,” said Julie Lonborg, senior vice president of communications and media relations at the Colorado Hospital Association. “In doing that, they are catching this in community spread.”
The association, along with hospital leadership, issued a call on Tuesday for Coloradans to “continue doing their part — and even a little more now — to control the spread of this dangerous virus. Wear your mask, wash your hands, watch your distance and wait till it’s safer to see other people.”
In response to the recent surge in hospitalizations and cases, Gov. Jared Polis has encouraged Coloradans to avoid gathering with people outside of their household.
“For Colorado to get through this pandemic and come out stronger and more resilient, we all need to do our part. That means local, state and federal governments along with people at home,” spokesman Conor Cahill said in a statement, adding, “However, if there comes a time where we could lose lives due to lack of medical capacity, the governor will not hesitate to statewide action.”
Local governments, including Denver’s, were quicker than Polis in issuing stay-at-home orders when the pandemic first reached Colorado in the spring.
State officials argue for a local approach to public health because they say the way the pandemic affects communities varies across the state.
Local public health officials said the county-by-county approach worked over the summer when cases and hospitalizations were lower and they could implement interventions strategically. For example, Boulder public health officials barred gatherings of college-aged people during the early fall after noticing a surge in cases among University of Colorado students.
But now, the transmission of the novel coronavirus is so widespread that it’s not possible to do such measures and be successful in controlling the disease, they said.
“The spread is so wide it is affecting, again, all age groups and folks are not cooperating with contact tracing,” said Theresa Anselmo, executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials. “So it’s really, really difficult to find out where the infection is coming from.
“While it’s affecting communities differently, it is quite frankly spreading everywhere at a rapid pace,” she added.
The counties also want at least a regional approach because it can be confusing for residents when public health orders differ by county as people travel to other parts of the state, Huffman said.
“It’s more effective when we can work together,” she said.