With a continued skyrocketing surge in COVID-19 cases in La Plata County, more restrictive measures are set to take effect Friday to limit the virus’ spread at a time health experts say is a critical moment in the pandemic.
Among the more notable changes, restaurants will be closed to indoor dining but will still be allowed to offer takeout and delivery, and the capacity limit for gyms will be reduced from 25% to 10%. The more restrictive order also prohibits in-person social gatherings with people outside their households, in any setting – a week before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Gov. Jared Polis said at a news conference Tuesday the state of Colorado is reporting an estimated 6,000 new cases a day, with more than 1,300 people hospitalized because of complications from COVID-19.
As a result, hospitals are struggling to meet the demand for care, a moment elected officials and medical professionals have feared since March when public health orders were first enacted to “flatten the curve.”
“This trend cannot continue of the increase we’ve seen in the last few weeks,” Polis said. “We in Colorado need to act to stop this exponential growth to save lives and save our economy.”
Though public health orders are in place that require face coverings indoors and reduce the capacity in workplaces and restaurants, Polis said the current rise in cases shows more steps need to be taken to slow the virus’ spread.
“We clearly need a more drastic shift in behavior to further slow the transmission in the virus,” he said.
Polis said state health officials tweaked Colorado’s dial framework, which standardizes different levels of “openness” at the county level to create a new “Level Red” in an attempt to avoid a stay-at-home order.
Level Red imposes increased restrictions on restaurants and gyms, including:
In-person social gatherings with people outside one’s household, in any setting, are prohibited, even with social distancing.Office-based workplaces must reduce in-person workforce to 10%.Indoor events and entertainment venues are forced to close. Outdoor event venues may remain open with additional restrictions.“What we have been doing hasn’t worked well enough,” Polis said.
Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, said La Plata County will move from its current Level Orange, which the county entered Nov. 13, to the new Level Red on Friday.
La Plata County has been able to avoid a dramatic rise in cases since the pandemic started in March, but ever since the week after Halloween, positive cases have been through the roof, Jollon said.
From Nov. 1 to Nov. 16, there have been a reported 458 positive cases – more than what was reported during a seven-month period from March 23 to Oct. 31, which had 427 cases.
One of the criteria to move into Level Red is if a county reports 350 or more new cases per 100,000 residents in the last 14 days. When adjusted for population size, that would set the threshold for La Plata County at about 200 cases.
In the past 14 days, 426 cases have been reported – more than double the threshold, according to SJBPH.
“Our case rate is skyrocketing right now,” Jollon said.
The aim in moving to Level Red now, Jollon said, is to get out early in an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus.
The end goal, she said, is to avoid a stay-at-home order, be able to reopen schools, protect the workforce of emergency responders and avoid hospitals from reaching capacity.
Stephen Cobb, chief medical officer of Centura Denver Metro Group, Mercy Regional Medical Center’s parent company, said Mercy had adequate staff as of Tuesday to take care of incoming patients, but available workforce remains a major concern.
“If the spread of the virus continues, we may come to that day where we have limits on the care we can provide,” Cobb said. “And we’re all concerned about that.”
Cobb said Mercy benefits from being part of the Centura network, having access to supplies and other resources, and the hospital’s patient capacity also remained adequate as of Tuesday.
But Cobb said people’s actions and whether they follow best health practices will have a big impact on whether conditions potentially worsen at the hospital.
“If we do the right things, we could shut the spread of this virus down,” he said.
Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer said the department is already short-staffed and having trouble meeting service demand, so the “last thing we can do is have people sick as well.”
“We’re trying to get ahead of it,” Brammer said. “I think everyone is scrambling to try to get ahead of it at this point.”
While the Level Red regulations are aimed at reducing social interactions, it is going to be up to the community over the next few weeks to wear face coverings, social distance and avoid gatherings, Jollon said.
“We understand this is a really, really tough move for the community,” she said. “And it also requires us community members to really step up doing our part going into the holiday season.”