COVID-19 death toll expected to double in Colorado before January


    Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist for Colorado, participates in a news briefing on the state's response to COVID-19 on Nov. 24, 2020. (Governor Jared Polis Facebook)

    If Colorado’s virus transmission stays on the current trajectory, the death toll from COVID-19 will more than double by the end of December, according to state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy.

    Statewide, at least 408 people have died with the disease since Oct. 26, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In total, 2,810 people have died in Colorado with COVID-19, 2,456 of whom died as a direct result of the illness.

    If the state remains on its current trajectory, total deaths are expected to reach 6,600 by the end of December, Herlihy said at a news briefing Nov. 24. If social distancing decreases just slightly among Coloradans in the coming weeks, the death toll could reach 7,400.

    “We are projected to exceed ICU bed capacity in mid-January,” Herlihy added, “and this is really why we need to increase transmission control.”

    If transmission control — essentially, measures such as social distancing that limit the virus’ spread from person to person — decreases due to the Thanksgiving holiday, Colorado hospitals could have their intensive care units overwhelmed by mid-December, Herlihy said.

    Statewide, 1,597 people are hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19, and another 114 with suspected cases, according to the CDPHE.

    “I am confident that the steps that are being taken across our state with the counties that are now in red will help turn the corner on reducing cases and hospital load,” Gov. Jared Polis said during the briefing.

    Just 25 intensive care beds are available in Denver, three in Weld County, five in Pueblo County and 14 in Colorado Springs, Polis said.

    While cross-household gatherings of any size are banned in counties in the red level of the state’s COVID-19 dial system — which now number 20 and counting — Polis referred to Thanksgiving plans as a matter of personal responsibility, while strongly urging people to gather with only their own households.

    “There’s folks who, you know, this might be your mom or dad’s last year on the planet, and you want to gather together even with that risk,” Polis said. “There are still ways to reduce that risk … Mask-wearing can absolutely reduce the risk. Being outdoors can absolutely reduce the risk.”

    Still, he said, “trying to force a social situation this Thanksgiving could put your future Thanksgivings at risk, and each of us will have to live with those consequences for ourselves and our family.”

    Dial map Nov. 24
    This map shows dial levels by county as of Nov. 24, 2020. El Paso County does not officially move to the red level until Nov. 27. (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)

    As part of recent changes to the state’s dial system framework, counties in the red level are encouraged to have in-person school classes continue despite high virus transmission. Polis recently has emphasized a desire to get students back in classrooms, while many districts have closed due to policies on mandatory quarantines that limit staff availability.

    In a recent letter to Polis, Colorado school executives expressed frustration with the state’s quarantine rules, which they say are hindering in-person instruction.

    At the briefing Nov. 24, Polis said he was convening a task force of school leaders and health officials to figure out how to make sure students can stay in the classroom next semester. The task force’s first meeting will be Nov. 25.