Rising COVID-19 transmission rate rivals July spike, state officials say

Coronavirus deaths exceed 200,000 nationwide

A view of the University of Colorado Boulder campus. (colorado.edu)

For the past couple of weeks, state officials have been reporting that outbreaks among college students could pose a danger to Colorado’s ability to keep COVID-19 under control.

It’s now clear that the number of new cases is rising on a steeper trajectory than during the spike after the Fourth of July, officials said at a COVID-19 briefing Sept. 22.

“(The increase is) similar to what we saw around the Fourth of July holiday,” state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said. “If you look at that time period, it was around 45%, I think, week-over-week increase. I want to say we were in the low 50s this past week for all age groups.”

“But if you look specifically excluding the 18- to 25-year-olds, so that contribution of college outbreaks right now, it is in the same 45% range,” she added.

It’s still unclear whether the increase in hospitalizations and deaths will match those associated with a July increase in cases, and whether the current case trajectory will continue. The summer increase led Gov. Jared Polis to mandate face coverings in indoor public spaces.

Rachel Herlihy, the Colorado state epidemiologist, participates in a news briefing with Gov. Jared Polis on the state’s response to COVID-19 on Sept. 22, 2020, at the Governor’s Mansion. (Governor Jared Polis Facebook)

Colorado is seeing more cases across all demographics, “not necessarily related to the campus outbreaks — just a general increase,” Polis said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported an average of 524 new cases per day for the week ending Sept. 21, according to data updated around 4 p.m. on Sept. 22. One week prior, the state was reporting around 366 cases per day.

This summer’s spike culminated the week ending July 27, when CDPHE was reporting an average of 622 new cases a day.

The percent of COVID-19 tests that come back positive is also increasing, meaning that the increase in cases isn’t just due to more testing, officials said.

Meanwhile, hospitalizations for COVID-19 have remained relatively stable, Herlihy said. That’s due in part to the fact that much of the increase has been driven by college students, who are less likely to experience serious symptoms.

“You will see less hospitalization from that 18- to 25-year-old group,” Polis said at the briefing. “So we’re grateful. The danger is the community spread. We know that college students generally associate with one another, but many of them have jobs or work in the community.”

The University of Colorado Boulder has reported 859 cases since testing began Aug. 24, including 474 from Sept. 15 through Sept. 21.

U.S. cases continue to rise

As of Sept. 22, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. alone have died due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. (The provisional death count from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number at 187,072 through Sept. 19.)

The New York Times reports that the U.S. is seeing an average of about 40,000 new cases a day based on a seven-day average.

Colorado is doing better than many other states, as Polis has often said during his briefings. North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin lead the nation in the number of cases per capita over the last week, according to the Times.

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A coronavirus vaccine is still a ways out. Though President Trump has previously said a vaccine could be widely available by Election Day in November, the Washington Post reported Sept. 22 that the federal Food and Drug Administration plans to issue stricter standards that would make that timeline unlikely to achieve until at least December, even through the emergency authorization process.

Still, Colorado is preparing for distribution. Those will probably include making the vaccine available first to health care workers, first responders and vulnerable populations, Polis said Sept. 22.

Gov. Jared Polis participates in a news briefing on the state’s response to COVID-19 on Sept. 22, 2020, at the Governor’s Mansion. (Governor Jared Polis Facebook)

“Part of this is contingency planning, because you don’t yet know whether that number in — let’s say, the first week in December — is … 100,000 doses, 300,000 doses, 500,000 doses,” Polis said.

Herlihy added that Colorado was looking to CDC guidance about how to prioritize vaccine resources once a COVID-19 vaccine is available for distribution to the general public.

Polis said the state would brief the public on Colorado’s vaccine distribution plans within the next week or two.

In the meantime, officials urged Coloradans to get their flu shots, which Polis said should be available at pharmacies and community health clinics.

“Anytime is the right time” to get the flu shot, Herlihy said.

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