“Shut it down, start over, do it right.”
That’s the message from a national coalition of health professionals and advocacy groups who say that it’s time for state and local governments — including in Colorado — to return to strict social-distancing measures like stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions to combat worrying trends in COVID-19 case data.
“Colorado needs to hit the reset button,” said Allison Conwell, an advocate with the Colorado Public Interest Research Group. With hundreds of new cases still being reported daily five months into the coronavirus pandemic, CoPIRG is calling on the state to re-enact its stay-at-home order and ban nonessential interstate travel until improved testing capacity, contact tracing and other mitigation measures are put in place.
Colorado has fared better than many other states amid a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, and Gov. Jared Polis expressed confidence this week that the wave of new infections across the state is “plateauing.” But advocates with a national coalition of PIRG affiliates — backed by hundreds of medical professionals and public health experts who signed an open letter authored by the group last month — argue that the continued “reopening” of states across the country is costing too many lives.
“Plateauing is a great step down from an increase, but it’s not a decrease,” Conwell told Newsline in an interview. “The (state’s) goal right now is to keep the virus at a level where it doesn’t overwhelm hospitals, but we believe that the goal should be to reduce infection rates to a point where we can actually contain the virus, and stop any more unnecessary deaths.”
That differs from the message sent throughout the pandemic by Polis, who has consistently said that the state’s objective is to prevent case loads from exceeding hospital capacity and achieve social distancing in a way that is “economically sustainable.”
“The Governor will continue to make decisions based on the latest data and recommendations from the state’s top public health experts,” Polis spokesperson Conor Cahill wrote in an email. “We regularly coordinate and collaborate with local county health departments and will continue to do so. Our top priority is to continue protecting the health and safety of Coloradans.”
As of Aug. 1, at least 1,710 Coloradans have died as a result of contracting COVID-19, according to CDC data — though public-health analyses of “excess deaths” have suggested that the virus’ actual death toll, including in Colorado, is significantly higher than official counts indicate. More than 150,000 confirmed deaths have been reported nationwide, and experts predict that that figure will exceed 230,000 by November.
More testing, tracing needed
In response to rising case numbers in July, Polis implemented several new measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, including a statewide mask mandate and an order requiring bars and restaurants to stop alcohol sales at 10 p.m. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also warned 15 counties that they were at risk of losing their variances, which allow local governments to further loosen certain restrictions, if case data continues to trend in the wrong direction.
In Denver, where a spike in new cases and strained testing capacity has alarmed public health officials, Mayor Michael Hancock urged residents to follow mask-wearing and social-distancing protocols if they want to prevent a return to shutdown measures.
Continued warning signs in the city’s COVID-19 data “would likely trigger additional rollbacks and possible action by the state,” Hancock said in a July 31 press conference. “That is what we want to avoid.”
But CoPIRG advocates say that such measures are needed now. They point to a new paper released by researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute, which suggests that in order to effectively suppress the virus, governments must achieve a testing positivity rate of less than 3%, combined with the implementation of robust contact-tracing programs.
In their open letter to policymakers, PIRG advocates and health professionals warned that failing to achieve such suppression will result in “widespread suffering and death.” Signed by influential public health experts like World Health Organization special advisor Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel and researchers from Harvard and Johns Hopkins University, the letter called on governments to close all nonessential businesses, restrict interstate travel and mandate mask-wearing in all public spaces until cases decline dramatically and more effective mitigation is possible.
“We need that protocol in place until case numbers recede to a level at which we have the capacity to effectively test and trace,” the letter reads. “Then, and only then, we can try a little more opening, one small step at a time.”