Starting Friday, Colorado counties will be left to decide how to control rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations as the statewide COVID-19 dial system, which has set public health restrictions for the past seven months, moves from a mandate to a recommendation.
The state will place restrictions only on large, indoor gathering places, like sports arenas and concert venues. That’s in addition to Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide mask mandate, which has been dramatically rolled back in about half of Colorado’s counties.
“We’re confident that with great vaccination progress, shifting the role of managing the pandemic through a statewide restriction can successfully transition to greater responsibility at the local level and, yes, greater responsibility on the personal level as well,” Polis said at a news conference earlier this week.
But Polis also acknowledges that Colorado has entered a fourth wave of infections, driven by more transmissible — and potentially more lethal — coronavirus variants. As of last week, more than half of Colorado’s cases now stem from variants like B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, and B.1.427/B.1.429, which was first identified in California.
Coronavirus fatalities in the state have dropped dramatically as more than 80% of Coloradans 70 years old and above have been fully immunized, but risks still remain for the state’s younger population.
Some Colorado counties, including almost all of the counties in the Denver metro area, are working to enact their own public health restrictions to replace the dial system and prevent coronavirus from spreading out of control. Other counties are vowing to lift all COVID-19 mandates.
The result will be a mosaic of complicated restrictions that Coloradans will be asked to navigate. On the Arapahoe County side of East County Line Road, for instance, the LongHorn Steakhouse may be subject to capacity limits. Across the street, the Red Lobster in Douglas County can pack in as many diners as they’d like.
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, who leads Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, said the state is at a “pivotal point in the pandemic.”
“The pandemic is certainly not over yet,” she said. “We need to maintain transmission control at the same level for at least the next month in order to prevent a spike in hospitalizations and deaths.”
The governor has likened Colorado’s COVID situation to a race between getting people vaccinated and the variants.
Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver and Jefferson counties, where a large portion of Colorado’s population lies, have formed a coalition and decided to keep the dial system’s restrictions in place but all move down a level starting on Friday for at least a month. After that, the counties, which are part of a metro-area partnership, will reevaluate.
“The state’s decision means that a number of Colorado counties and local jurisdictions will not maintain restrictions. There’s nothing we can do about that,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said. “We will be taking a different approach in Denver.”
Douglas County’s commissioners refused to join the coalition, opting out of a decision by its public health agency, Tri-County Health Department, to join together with the rest of the metro-area counties. “The success of any efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 relies mostly on the voluntary, resolute implementation of those efforts by the population, not the enforcement of formulaic, inconsistent and overbroad government regulations,” a resolution unanimously passed by the three commissioners said.
Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon said he wanted his county to send the message to say “this pandemic is over,” according to Denver7.
Officials in El Paso County, the state’s second-most populous, told The Gazette that they aren’t planning to have any local COVID-19 restrictions. El Paso and Douglas have the second and third-most cases of the B.1.1.7. coronavirus variant, respectively, according to the latest state data. (Larimer County has the most cases.)
Weld County officials say they, too, will not have any local coronavirus restrictions once the dial goes away on Friday, according to KDVR-TV.
Dr. Bob McDonald, who runs the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, said he thinks counties like Douglas and El Paso are making a bad decision.
“I think it’s a mistake to move from whatever compliance we have based on the dial to nothing,” McDonald said during a media briefing on Wednesday. “I think it’s too fast.”
McDonald said he thinks the end of the dial system “presents some challenges, for sure.” But he said, conversely, that the change will allow counties to carefully tailor their response to their coronavirus situation.
The final throes of the pandemic could play out very differently depending on how counties respond to the end of the dial and whether people keep their guard up.
The virus is spreading at an exponential rate, according to the latest estimates. Mobility data suggest people are moving around in Colorado more now than they have at any point during the pandemic — including during the catastrophic late-fall and early-winter surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Both of these factors lay the groundwork for potentially another massive surge in infections.
A report released this week by Colorado university researchers predicts that an immediate end to the dial coupled with a relaxation of personal behavior could lead to hundreds of more deaths. The research team, led by the Colorado School of Public Health, modeled the combined impact of loosened restrictions, rising vaccination rates and faster-spreading variants.
In a scenario where researchers assumed that vaccination rates continue rising rapidly and the B.1.1.7. variant becomes the dominant variant in the state, something that now looks likely, an immediate end to the dial combined with a relaxing of precautions could cause a spike in hospitalizations that, at worst, might approach what the state experienced during the December peak.
More alarming, ending the dial and relaxing precautions could lead to 400 to 600 more deaths by July 1 compared to what the state would see on its current trajectory, according to the report.
But waiting a month before ending the dial and then relaxing restrictions would have a far smaller impact, causing at worst only a slight increase in hospitalizations and slightly more deaths.
“Delaying policy changes until mid-May will prevent large numbers of deaths and hospitalizations,” the researchers wrote. “Moreover, delaying policy changes until mid-May will allow for more options in terms of the number and magnitude of changes that could be pursued without a major increase in hospitalizations and deaths. … Clear communication regarding the continued risks of infection through mid-May, particularly among those not yet vaccinated, will be important.”
The Biden administration has been pleading with states not to roll back their pandemic restrictions quite yet to allow more time for people to get vaccinated. About one third of Colorado’s population has received at least a first dose of coronavirus vaccine.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines aren’t considered fully effective until two weeks after the second dose is administered. Colorado has paused distribution of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine as federal regulators investigate reports of blood clots in a handful of women who received the inoculation.
Ryan, who leads CDPHE, said the state will continue to offer a “base-layer of protection” through its mask order and limits on large indoor gatherings.
And Polis said the end of the dial system does not mean the state is lifting all restrictions, adding that Coloradans should remain vigilant.
“(It) doesn’t mean that the state in any way, shape or form is letting up on our efforts to suppress the virus,” Polis saaid. “We’re continuing two very important statewide measures to protect Coloradans no matter where you live. We expect that many local governments will go above and beyond these statewide measures.”
Still, at the same time, he nodded to Colorado’s bad coronavirus trends.
“I think that the number of cases and hospitalizations will, sadly, continue to go up before it goes down,” he said.