Colorado has been walking a fine balance, with a rough stalemate between COVID-19 and the vaccines and precautions meant to beat the virus.
It’s not clear if that balance will hold as the state continues to open up.
As of Monday, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are at about the same level they were at the beginning of March, said Beth Carlton, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health.
Normally, cases and hospitalizations would fall as more people are vaccinated, or would rise as people begin mixing more — especially with more-contagious variants of the virus spreading.
The largely flat numbers suggest those forces have been about equally matched. The question is whether Colorado can vaccinate the population fast enough to keep up as the state loosens restrictions and the variants continue to circulate.
“Changing behavior and changing policy in a dramatic way is risky” because most people still aren’t immune to the virus, Carlton said.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 7,502 new cases last week, which was four fewer than it counted in the last week of February. Hospitalizations also were similar to early-March levels, with 382 people receiving care for confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Both cases and hospitalizations had declined slightly in the first half of the month, then rebounded.
In a month or so, it could be significantly safer to loosen restrictions, because more people will be vaccinated against the virus, Carlton said. The vaccines continue to be effective against new variants, and a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines decreased the odds of any infection — including cases where a person could transmit the virus without showing symptoms — by about 90%, she said.
“We’re not there in terms of getting enough people vaccinated… but this is a gamechanger,” she said.
While the statewide numbers are roughly stable, parts of the high country and the San Luis Valley have seen increasing infections. Pitkin County moved to a more restrictive level on the state’s dial framework last week, and Summit County could do so this week if its numbers don’t improve.
During a news conference announcing that the state would open vaccination to anyone 16 or older starting Friday, Gov. Jared Polis asked those who aren’t vaccinated to keep wearing their masks and avoiding gatherings. Another surge is still possible, he said.
“If we can keep it up a little longer, then we will have a fairly normal summer,” he said. “Now is not the time to let up.”
The plea for caution came on the heels of a change that allowed businesses in nearly half of the state’s counties to operate with few restrictions.
On Wednesday, the state switched to the third version of its dial framework and moved 26 counties into Level Green, the least-restrictive option. Two counties were already at that level. The only restrictions in Level Green counties are on bars, group sports and indoor events, which all are limited to 50% of capacity or 500 people, whichever is smaller.
The changes also loosened restrictions on restaurants and gyms in Level Yellow counties, and allowed bars to reopen at 25% of capacity in Level Blue counties.
Polis suggested counties could begin deciding on their own restriction levels in mid-April, and that the state would only regulate events drawing “thousands” of people. He didn’t tie the two-week timeline to reducing COVID-19 cases or hospitalizations.
“I don’t expect much to change in the next two weeks. What’s changing is more and more people are getting vaccinated,” he said.
The statewide mask mandate expires Saturday, and the state health department has proposed largely lifting it in counties in Level Green. In counties up to Level Red, masks would only be required in indoor spaces with 10 or more people. For counties in Level Purple — the highest stage, triggered when hospitals are already going over capacity — masks would be required in all indoor public settings.
Students ages 11 to 18 would have to continue wearing masks in school, regardless of where they live, because most can’t get vaccinated yet.
Polis indicated the mask mandate would be extended two weeks when he spoke Monday morning. But a few hours later, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the state health department, told lawmakers the plan remained to lift it in Level Green counties, except for those school kids, on Sunday. A message to the health department seeking clarification wasn’t returned.
The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Monday that the country could be facing another spike, and President Joe Biden asked governors to pause reopening and reinstate mask mandates.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the country is logging 60,000 to 70,000 new infections daily, up from a previous plateau of around 50,000. Hospitalizations and deaths have also started to rise nationwide. Increasing travel and the spread of new variants could be factors, she said.
“Right now I’m scared,” she said in a briefing Monday. “I think people want to be done with this. The thing that’s different this time is we actually have it in our power to be done because of the scale of the vaccination.”
Colorado has recorded 459,361 cases of COVID-19 since March 2020, with 25,367 hospitalizations and 6,208 deaths.