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Before protests brought thousands together, data pointed to a possible coronavirus resurgence in Colorado

State health officials say it will take two weeks before they can measure whether the demonstrations led to a surge in new COVID-19 cases

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As the protests over the death of George Floyd brought thousands of Coloradans together to demonstrate against racism and police violence, the novel coronavirus was already showing signs of potentially heading toward a resurgence, new data from a Colorado university modeling team revealed Monday.

While hospitalizations from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continue to decline across the state, the team found that the rate of decline appears to be slowing.

“This is what we would expect as the distancing measures are relaxed somewhat,” said Dr. Jonathan Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, which leads the modeling effort.

A slide from a June 1, 2020, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment presentation on new modeling data on the coronavirus epidemic in the state. The chart shows that the rate of decline in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state is slowing. (Screenshot)

Meanwhile, the team believes the “reproduction number” — the number of people every infected person passes the virus onto, on average, also known as the R0 — is rising. During the state’s stay-at-home period, that number had been safely below 1, Samet said. But now the reproduction number is inching back up. If the reproduction number rises back over 1, infection rates will start increasing again, leading to higher numbers of daily hospitalizations and deaths.

“We are still not out of the woods,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “The more people interact as restrictions are relaxed, the more transmission will increase.”

A chart from a June 1, 2020, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment presentation on the coronavirus epidemic in the state. The chart shows that the reproduction value — the average number of people that each infected person passes the virus onto — has begun inching upward as the state reopens its economy. (Screenshot)

That makes the protests — historic social unrest during an equally historic pandemic — especially notable to health officials. Ryan said CDPHE supports the right of people to demonstrate peacefully and make their voices heard. But she urged protesters to continue following recommendations for mask-wearing in public and try to maintain 6 feet of distance from others even in the crowd.

“This goes not only for people who are gathering, but also reporters and law enforcement,” Ryan said.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, said health leaders estimate that about 1 out of every 300 Coloradans is actively infectious with the virus — meaning that when thousands of people gather, there’s the potential for at least several people to be viral spreaders.

Because of the lag created by the virus’ incubation period, Herlihy said it will be about two weeks before epidemiologists can say whether the protests in recent days did, in fact, spread COVID-19 more widely.

Experts believe that outdoor transmission of the virus is harder than indoor transmission. So, that distinguishes outdoor demonstrations from a large, indoor rally, for instance. But Herlihy said the nature of protests — people who are often strangers to one another coming from widely different areas to gather in a single place — presents other challenges.

When trying to chase infections, Herlihy said epidemiologists conducting contact-tracing rely on interviews with infected people to identify where and to whom those people might have passed on the virus.

“That obviously is challenging to do in an environment where you don’t necessarily know who you’ve had contact with,” she said.

As a result, health officials are urging all people in Colorado to be more proactive in seeking out testing. The state has in recent days hit new highs for coronavirus testing capacity. Ryan said everyone who is showing possible symptoms of COVID-19 should now go seek out a test. She said even asymptomatic people who had possible exposure to the virus should get a test — after waiting seven days to allow for the incubation period.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has urged everyone who attended the protests to get a coronavirus test. And one protest organizer, Tay Anderson, who is also a board member for Denver Public Schools, said he will get tested on Saturday and asked others to join him.

“We must ensure that we maintain our health and the health of others,” Anderson wrote on Twitter.


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