Colorado’s COVID-19 picture is murky as hospitalizations and epidemics continue to rise, but cases are showing signs they could start to decline.
State epidemiologist Dr Rachel Herlihy said the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases has declined over the past few days, but it’s not clear if this is the start a plateau or a sustained decrease – or a burst before cases start to resuscitate. The average peaked at around 1,933 cases per day on September 5, then fell to around 1,717 on Monday.
“It’s an unclear trend for me,” she said at a press briefing on Wednesday.
COVID-19-related hospitalizations continue to rise, but not as rapidly as they were last week. If cases are really down, hospitalizations are expected to follow in the near future. If they don’t, it could be a sign that the decrease in cases was a failure or reflected insufficient testing.
The number of outbreaks in the state also continued to rise, from 291 last week to 362 on Wednesday. More than a third of current epidemics occur in schools.
In most contexts, an outbreak is defined as five or more cases sharing a link. In a school, this could be a class or extracurricular activity that students share, or that they take the bus together. When a school has several smaller clusters, the state brings them together.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are an exception and must declare an epidemic after two linked cases. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported that 67 nursing homes and 46 assisted living facilities had clusters, a combined increase of 13 from last week.
Outbreaks are of particular concern in long-term care facilities, as their residents are at high risk of serious illness or death. The current outbreaks have infected 289 residents and 365 staff. Ten residents died.
As of Wednesday, 127 schools had outbreaks, up from 80 a week ago. So far, active epidemics have affected 1,379 students and 204 staff. Nobody died.
The majority of outbreaks affected five people or less, but 11 schools recorded 30 or more cases:
- Loveland High School, Thompson R2-J Schools: 46 student cases, three staff cases
- Douglas County High School, Douglas County School District: 35 students, seven staff
- Power Technical Early College, Falcon District 49: 35 students, seven staff
- Northridge High School, Weld County District 6: 37 students, two employees
- Eagle Valley High School, Eagle County Schools: 37 students, no staff
- Mesa College, DCSD: 33 students, four staff members
- Horizon College, Falcon: 29 students, four staff
- Elbert School, Elbert District 200: 21 students, 11 staff
- Mortensen Primary School, Jeffco Public Schools: 22 students, eight staff
- Christian College / High School of the Resurrection: 24 students, six staff
- STEM Highlands Ranch School, DCSD: 30 students, zero staff
Outbreak data may not capture the full picture due to delays in notification. For example, Larimer County Public Health has linked 43 cases to Resurrection Christian School, according to The Coloradoan, but the state’s total is almost a third lower.
The state health department has encouraged districts to demand masks, but has not issued its own warrant. According to Chalkbeat Colorado, about 78% of students attend schools that have a mandate.
While masks are not perfect and should be layered on top of other protections, such as improved ventilation and regular testing, studies have shown that universal masking reduces the chances of COVID-19 spreading in schools.
Herlihy urged parents to have their children wear masks in schools and anywhere else they are indoors with others. Children are at a higher risk now than in earlier stages of the pandemic, as the delta variant of the virus is highly contagious and people under the age of 12 still cannot be vaccinated, she said.
“We know what works to reduce the risk of disease transmission,” she said.