As Colorado enters its fourth COVID-19 wave — and cases, hospitalizations and percent positivity tick up — state public health officials said Thursday they are confident moving forward with transferring regulation control back to the counties on Friday.
Scott Bookman, COVID-19 Incident Commander with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said as they prepare to transition public safety measures to local control, they are seeing variable case rates around the state.
“The time is right to transition to localized control with that state framework around it,” Bookman said, adding that the state would be closely assessing hospital capacity and working with local governments and public health agencies to hone their approaches.
But the move to local control on Friday comes as Colorado reported more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday and as hospitalizations continue to rise.
The latest modeling report from the Colorado School of Public Health released earlier this week said that “delaying policy changes, whether at the state or local level, until mid-May, vs. mid-April, will prevent large numbers of deaths and hospitalizations.”
When the Colorado health officials were again pressed by reporters Thursday as to why the state was still moving forward with handing over local control on Friday despite that recommendation, officials pointed to multiple factors, including increasing vaccinations, lower age groups being among those seeing higher case and hospitalization rates, varying case and hospital rates by county, and “a strong desire by communities to be open.”
“So, how do you solve for all of that? And the decision was that local control with the dial would be the best approach moving forward, knowing that we have adequate hospital capacity and increasing vaccination rates, and high variability across the counties,” said CDPHE Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eric France on Thursday.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach for a state as diverse as Colorado. So we really just wanted to make sure we had local control here, with the appropriate level of state support,” Bookman said. “...We take a number of things into consideration. Obviously, we know everyone is getting tired of this pandemic. We’re all tired of the pandemic. There is a light at the end of the tunnel here.”
Bookman pointed to the vast decrease in cases and hospitalizations at long-term care facilities, where most residents and workers have been vaccinated, as well as decreasing case and hospitalization numbers among older age groups as reasons why the vaccine was working and a cause for hope.
But he and France both stressed that while the state moves to local control, Coloradans should not disregard the day-to-day actions that have gotten us to this point.
“At this point, we want to encourage all Coloradans — regardless of the dial, regardless of what restrictions might be in place — wear a mask, keep your distancing, stay home when you’re sick. We are so close to the end here, it is absolutely critical that we keep following this guidance to the end,” Bookman said.
The good behavior of Coloradans who are wearing masks and staying distant over the past 15 months makes it easier to turn control over to the counties, France said.
“Because compared to other states, stories we hear time and time again, I feel that the people of Colorado have been very good about doing what’s right to reduce the spread of this virus,” he said. “If anything, I’d say that knowing how good Coloradans behave makes it that much easier to feel confident that local control will be successful.”
But the local control decisions have not been uniform in all of the most populous areas of the state. Though most of the metro area and higher-populated mountain communities are keeping some restrictions in place for at least another month, Douglas County has decided to lift all restrictions except for the ones that will still be controlled by the state and not go along with the Tri-County Health Department’s plans.
Douglas County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to allow businesses and restaurants to operate at full capacity with no restrictions aside from those in the state’s stay in place order, starting Friday. This is a break from the Tri-County Health Department, which announced a two-phase plan for full reopening. Adams and Arapahoe counties are still participating in the health department’s plan to move to Level Blue Friday and then Level Clear on the state’s COVID-19 dial by May.
Level Blue allows for 100% capacity at restaurants and gyms, and all in-person learning. Click here to learn more about this level and its restrictions.
When announcing the decision, Douglas County commissioners noted COVID-19’s survival rate and that 80% of those most at risk in the county were vaccinated.
Elbert County and Weld County announced Thursday they would also lift all local restrictions on Friday.
In addition, Jefferson County Public Health said Tuesday that it will move toward a full reopening on Friday under Level Blue. Denver County will make the same move.
Boulder County also said it will likely move to Level Blue on Friday as long as case rates and percentage positivity in the county stay low.
Eagle County will continue to require masks in indoor public spaces, keep in place its requirement that visitors be symptom-free of COVID. Capacity limits for 5-Star certified restaurants and gyms will be lifted but social distancing will still have to be maintained, and non-certified businesses will still have capacity limits. There will remain caps on indoor and outdoor event capacities as well.
The state public health officials said that continuing the scale-up of vaccine administration would be key to local control working.
"While we are moving toward light at end of tunnel as our vaccine campaign continues to increase and as more Coloradans receive this life-changing vaccine, it is important for all Coloradans to understand that we do have still have a significant amount of COVID in our state and its important to continue to take these precautions around this pandemic until people are fully vaccinated," Bookman said.
He also stressed the importance of COVD-19 testing for those who have symptoms and then isolating while waiting for the results. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, chills, fatigue, muscle or body aches, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, new loss of smell or taste, headache and diarrhea.
As vaccine rates have gone up, testing rates have gone down, Bookman said. But testing can help slow the spread of the virus.
"These simple efforts of testing is what will allow us to continue to control the spread of this disease so we can move forward while our vaccine rates continue to increase,” he said.
There are more than 80 free testing sites around the state.
"They're easy, they're efficient and they're free," Bookman said.
During Thursday’s press conference, Brigadier General Scott Sherman offered an update on current vaccinations in Colorado:
- Pfizer: 2,025,270
- Moderna: 1,887,110
- Johnson & Johnson: 279,500
In total, 4,191,880 cumulative doses have been distributed and 3,589,358 have been administered, Sherman said.
According to the state's website, as of Tuesday evening, 2,200,603 people have been immunized with one COVID-19 dose and 1,339,880 people have been fully vaccinated.
CDPHE Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eric France said in an Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) meeting Wednesday on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the blood clots a small number of people have experienced after the vaccine, the ACIP said the cases seem to be occurring at a rate that is higher than what he expected.
“More work needs to be done to really nail this down,” he said.
The ACIP will help provide more information in the coming seven to 10 days as they look over more data, France said.
From a policy perspective, he said there are three approaches to this development: continue with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, not recommend it be used at all, or make recommendations based on age and gender, as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine occurred in six women between the ages of 18 and 48. As of now, Colorado has paused the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until more research can be done.
Bookman also said during Thursday’s news conference that there is an investigation underway into how a health and wellness clinic in Colorado Springs mismanaged thousands of vaccine doses and whether or not the state followed its own protocols in inspecting the site before it started administering vaccines.