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“A test of our Colorado character”: High country will be hardest hit by coronavirus, governor warns

There were 33 confirmed coronavirus cases in Colorado on Tuesday, at least 17 of which were rooted in the high country. In Aspen, nine people were diagnosed with the disease on Tuesday alone.

The Ajax Express chairlift on Aspen Mountain.(Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday issued a stark warning to the state and the high country in particular as the new coronavirus rapidly spreads.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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“This will get worse before it gets better,” he told reporters, calling the outbreak a “test of our Colorado character” that has no end in sight.

He bluntly added: “There are more difficult days ahead.”

The Democrat said mountain communities, where there is evidence that COVID-19, as the coronavirus is formally known, is spreading from person to person, will likely be the hardest hit of any place in the state.

“At this point, we can confirm community spread in the high country of Colorado,” said Polis, who announced a state of emergency on Tuesday. “We are likely on the verge of a tipping point where we will see more community spread in the days and weeks ahead.”

The number of coronavirus cases in Colorado reached 33 on Wednesday, including nine patients who were newly diagnosed in Aspen. That group was linked to a 21-year-old Australian tourist who left the glitzy resort town last week and tested positive for the virus when she returned home.

“A single person can spread this to 10, dozens of individuals,” he said. “And that’s what we appear to have seen in Pitkin County.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis gives an update about the new coronavirus during a news conference on March 11, 2020, in his Capitol office. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis called Aspen a “hotspot” for infection, noting that mountain communities are especially vulnerable because of their lack of resources to fight the virus’ spread. Combined with their high altitude and the fact that they draw so many visitors from the Front Range and out of state, they are particularly risky.

There were four cases in Eagle County on Tuesday and another three linked to Gunnison County. The state’s first case, announced last week, was a California man visiting Summit County to ski.

Polis warned anyone who is over age 60 or who is vulnerable because of a compromised immune system to abstain from traveling to Colorado’s mountains unless it’s absolutely necessary, a significant step given the state is at the height of the ski season and expecting a wave of spring break travelers in the coming days.

The governor predicted the state’s tourism and energy industries will be hardest hit by the economic impacts of the virus.

Polis said he would be issuing guidance to retirement and assisted living homes on Thursday urging them to limit and screen visitors to prevent an outbreak among people who live there. The state will also be telling schools to close for at least 72 hours if a student or faculty member tests positive for the virus.

He also said he will be meeting with religious leaders and the owners of venues across the state later this week to discuss how to keep people safe in crowded places. Other states have banned mass gatherings, including at sporting events, which will now go on without fans there to watch them.

“We want them to establish protocols where they can have safe spacing at events,” he said.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis enters his office to brief reporters on the new coronavirus on March 11, 2020. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

However, he explained, if the outbreak worsens he will not hesitate to ban large public gatherings altogether. The first places to be affected by such an executive action would likely be in the mountains.

At the very least, right now, he urged older Coloradans and people with compromised immune systems to avoid those situations.

Polis said that while there hasn’t been confirmed community spread in the Denver metro area, health officials are responding as it it’s already happening. He said it’s likely the virus has already spread in a “stealth way” and that we won’t know to what extent that’s happened until more testing is done.

The governor reiterated that the state needs more testing if it wants to make a serious impact on slowing the spread. He said that would mean thousands, or tens of thousands of tests daily.

On Wednesday, Colorado opened an outdoor, drive-up testing lab in east Denver. Television news helicopter footage showed a long line of cars waiting at the site.

“We will be looking at additional testing sites across our state as soon as we can,” Polis said.

There will be a special focus on getting one of those sites up and running in the high country.

“I can’t stress enough the importance that the government alone, our public health system alone cannot stop or even significantly slow the spread of the virus,” Polis said. “What is required is individual responsibility or action.”

Separately, the Colorado Department of Corrections said it was suspending all visits to prisons, except for legal visits, for the next 30 days to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

DOC also will limit travel of staff between prison facilities and will suspend volunteer programs. During this period, parolees who are over age 60, ill, or immune compromised, or who have traveled to areas where community spread is occuring or have had contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 will communicate with their parole officers by phone or email, rather than at an office visit.

“Anytime we make these types of changes to operations, we are acutely aware of the impact it has on those who work and live in our facilities as well as their loved ones, and we do our best to lessen the impact as much as possible,” corrections chief Dean Williams wrote in a news release.

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