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Boulder County health officials warn that unchecked coronavirus rates could lead to stay-at-home return

The county, dealing with an outbreak at CU Boulder, has already passed one of the thresholds that could warrant a shutdown similar to what was mandated in March

The Williams Village area of University of Colorado Boulder's campus. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Despite efforts from the University of Colorado Boulder and Boulder County to limit young adults from gathering and interacting with others in the community, health officials warned Tuesday that if coronavirus rates don’t improve, the county could be forced to shut down in the way it did in March.

A statewide public health order issued by Gov. Jared Polis earlier this month notes that to attain and keep safer-at-home status — where counties are less restricted, but still not back to normal — one of the criteria includes keeping the rate of new cases in a two week period at or below 75 per 100,000 people. 

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Boulder County’s most recent rate is almost six times that.

In the two weeks preceding Monday, the county’s transmission rate was 443 people per 100,000. 

On Tuesday, the health department said there are signs Boulder County may be following the current statewide trend of an increase in new cases of COVID-19 among all age groups.

As of Monday, 4,440 Boulder County residents had tested positive or were considered probable for COVID-19.

Many of those cases have been driven by an outbreak among University of Colorado students. Since starting the semester on Aug. 24, CU Boulder has recorded more than 1,000 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19. That number includes tests only from on-campus medical facilities, not the results from campus community members getting tested in off-campus facilities.

Factoring in off-campus testing, CU-affiliated residents — including students, staff and faculty — account for over 1,667 cases in the county since Aug. 24.

Though the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not ordered the county to transition back into stay-at-home mode, Jeff Zayach, Boulder County Public Health director, said in an open meeting with campus and community members Tuesday afternoon that it could. 

“If we were judged today, we would be at stay at home, and that has a significant impact on our community,” Zayach said. “We have lost control of the virus if we end up at that point.”

On Tuesday morning, the university reported 32 tests came back positive on Monday, a fraction of the record of 130 positive tests on Sept. 17. (Reports on test results are delayed by a day.)

Zayach said in Tuesday’s meeting that case numbers among 18- to 22-year-olds are going down. But it’s not yet clear if any one measure — whether the temporary switch to online classes, increased enforcement on large social gatherings, or last week’s quarantine orders — is causing the decrease. 

“This downward trend in the 18-22-year-old age group is a good indication that the strategies we’ve implemented are starting to work,” Zayach said.

A screenshot from CU Boulder’s COVID-19-Ready Dashboard showing the progression of positive test results since students returned to campus in August. (Source)

The university prioritized questions from parents and community members during Tuesday’s virtual briefing. CU officials were not available to answer follow-up questions from The Colorado Sun by the time this article was published late Tuesday. 

Last week, the county ordered that all 18-22 year olds living in the city of Boulder refrain from gathering with anyone outside of their household. Boulder County deputy attorney Trina Ruhland, responding to a question Tuesday from a community member wondering how it was legal to restrict the movements of only a certain group of people, noted that the rate of COVID-19 among young adults has been significantly higher than that of other age groups in the county.

After community members expressed concerns about the safety of walking alone around campus and the city, Boulder County amended the order Monday morning to allow 18-22 year olds to gather in pairs.

Chana Goussetis, spokesperson for Boulder County Public Health, told The Colorado Sun that the team in charge of the order started hearing community feedback on Friday, prompting them to revisit its language to retain “the spirit of the order” while factoring in safety concerns.

CU Student Government’s Representative Council, who are elected at large from the student body, published a statement Sunday indicating concern, especially from women in the community, around leaving the house alone. Kat Adams, Representative Council speaker, said that the council supports the order’s intent to reduce viral spread, but that forcing students to go solo for errands felt “harsh and draconian.”

“It’s unfair to students, not taking into consideration the nuances of our lives, and treating us as a problem to be dealt with and not part of the community, which we are,” Adams said.

The university also switched to online-only classes on last week. In Tuesday’s briefing, Provost Russell Moore noted that there have been no documented cases as a result of going to in-person class, but said that limiting the movement of 18-22 year olds in general by pushing classes online, will help slow down the transmission rate of COVID-19. 

“The vast majority of students are doing a great job of adhering to public health orders,” Moore said. 

Campus officials also noted Tuesday that they are working to expand testing, especially for off-campus students. However, Patrick O’Rourke, interim executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer, acknowledged that the campus does not have enough resources to test every off-campus student every week.

Football players are getting daily tests for the coronavirus, but campus administrators said that this does not draw from campus testing resources. Rather, the Pac-12 conference is providing testing for athletes at conference schools, including CU.

The county’s public health order limiting gatherings among 18- to 22-year-olds extends through Oct. 8. Campus officials said they are prepared to resume in-person learning to some degree if the viral numbers stay low, but they will need the week and a half between now and when the order expires to make that decision.

Colorado Sun editor Dana Coffield contributed to this story.


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