I am a proud member of the research community here in Colorado, having been a professor of immunology at the University of Colorado for the last 16 years. During these difficult times, we at the CU-Anschutz Medical Campus have done much to alter our normal research programs to address the pandemic and its impact on Coloradans.
A few of us developed a new kind of test that can very sensitively and accurately (more so than present ELISA-based tests) identify antibodies against SARS-CoV2 (the novel coronavirus) and we are presently using this to survey first responders in Arapahoe County for exposure to the virus.
As you might imagine, given my job description, I am constantly being asked about coronavirus and COVID-19, what’s the latest science, and what do we know about outbreaks in the community. While my training equips me to answer the first two questions, I had few answers in regards to community outbreaks until I found the information gathered by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment on their website.
I have been very pleased to see that the level of detail in this data is far greater than I had originally believed it would have been: case numbers, locations of outbreaks, types of businesses/institutions involved and case distribution between staff/employees and customers/participants/residents etc.
READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.
Given this, it has been dismaying to hear the pure speculation often reported in the news media as to underlying causes for the present rise in cases. Instead of referencing the remarkable data sets now available, I usually hear statements like “it is thought that colder temperatures and people moving indoors is responsible for the rise in cases.” At this point in the pandemic, and with the data sets available, these statements should not be made without appropriate citations.
My very brief investigation of the data led me to conclusions with highly practical implications. Only about 25% of all cases are outside of colleges, prisons and health care facilities, as the chart above shows. This is an enormous problem, and until these environments get under control, it is not likely we can affect much change on the total number of coronavirus cases in Colorado any time soon.
For the remaining cases, however, two important things stand out. First, the vast majority are in places of business/offices/retail. Second, and importantly, essentially all of these are staff/employee outbreaks and almost none of them represent transmission to customers, as shown in the chart below. This is a big relief and suggests that when out in the community and doing their normal shopping (even in sit-down eating establishments), most people are using masks and keeping transmission rates very low.
What this data reveals, however, is that whatever behaviors are being practiced in the community are NOT being done at work.
Part of the fatigue everyone is experiencing now is due to the unsettling feeling that they are being asked to stay away from everyone else forever and always until further notice. While this is obviously unsustainable as an actual strategy, it is also unsustainable to let this sentiment continue permeating the pandemic.
These data suggest that there is no need to unilaterally do so. Most people I talk to think they are more likely to get the virus from an encounter with someone at a store or in a restaurant, not from someone they know at the office. In reality, people can and should be commended for how they are behaving in areas of commerce. Both businesses and customers alike will love to know that shopping is not an inherently dangerous activity as long as we keep doing what we are doing.
Your workplace is another matter entirely, and it is critical to direct everyone’s efforts to where they will do the most good. If you are not in college, prison, or in a health-care facility, then better attending to your coronavirus-prevention behavior at work is where to do so. It is easiest to let one’s guard down around the people with whom we spend the most time.
The numbers show that your biggest risk for infection comes from just popping next door to have a brief, mask-less conversation with a colleague that turns into 45 minutes long, or leaving your the mask off for a “quick” trip to the break room that ends up being a half an hour stay with multiple mask-less co-workers.
So support your local businesses and help keep the economy safe and strong by doing what you have been doing when you are out and about. But do the community, yourself, and your colleagues a favor: Keep the mask on when you get to work. The data are telling us that we are not going to get this virus under control until we do.
Ross Kedl is a professor of immunology and microbiology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus School of Medicine and is a vaccine-technology researcher.