Colorado says “timing is right” for state’s COVID-19 rules to ease

Colorado health officials expressed confidence Thursday that it’s time to let counties set their own COVID-19 restrictions, even as coronavirus hospitalizations and new infections continued to trend the wrong way.

Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander, didn’t rule out some sort of statewide action if hospital capacity becomes threatened by increasing spread of the virus. Still, he said, moving decisions about restrictions to the local level is the best way to account for differences in case counts around the state, and for the impact of increasing vaccinations.

“The timing is right,” he said during a press call.

Colorado’s public health department on Friday will lift nearly all statewide restrictions governed by its color-coded dial and will allow local health authorities to set their own restrictions — or not have any at all.

Denver and most other metro counties are sticking with the dial for another month, but moving down to Level Blue, which will allow restaurants and gyms to operate at 100% capacity with 6-foot social distancing, and bars that don’t serve food can reopen for the first time since last summer.

A few weeks ago, the possibility of hospitals being overstretched again seemed unthinkable, with more people getting vaccinated and cases leveling out. But that scenario was back on the table in the state’s latest COVID-19 modeling report when it was released April 7.

The model projected that if people make significant behavior changes after the state makes its dial framework advisory, hospitalizations could increase to 1,562. If that happened, it wouldn’t be as bad as during the fall wave, when nearly 2,000 people were hospitalized on the peak day in December, but it would once again exceed the previous peak in April 2020. Hospitals didn’t run out of beds in the fall wave, but staff reported they were overwhelmed and exhausted.

As of Thursday afternoon, 541 people were hospitalized statewide with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, the highest level since early February. The seven-day average of cases decreased to 1,429 per day, but the percentage of tests coming back positive remained elevated.

The model projected about 368 people would die of COVID-19 between April 1 and July 1 if trends as of late March continued. Under the scenario where the dial is no longer in effect and people make major behavioral changes, deaths could rise to 1,399.

Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said that overall compliance with mask-wearing and other restrictions has been high, which gives him confidence that the state can safely loosen restrictions. It’s important to continue wearing masks, staying 6 feet away from people you don’t live with and isolating at home if you feel sick, he said.

“I feel that the people of Colorado have been good about doing what’s right,” he said.

Bookman urged people who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to get tested, and those without symptoms to still quarantine if they were near someone who tested positive. The number of tests has fallen as more people have gotten vaccinated, he said. The positivity rate is rising, however, suggesting that people who aren’t yet immune also aren’t getting tested.

“When in doubt, go get a COVID test,” he said.

Investigating vaccination incidents

The state will start increasing visits to vaccine providers in the near future to ensure they’re handling the doses properly after suspending Dr. Moma Health and Wellness Clinic in El Paso County from the vaccination program.

People who got vaccinated at the site were told to get another shot, because the doses may have been stored at an incorrect temperature, rendering them ineffective.

Bookman didn’t answer whether the state had done a required inspection of the Moma Clinic before sending it doses, citing an ongoing investigation. Potential sites need to have a doctor or other medical provider with a license in good standing, and have to attest they are able to follow all requirements, he said.

“We are obviously incredibly disappointed that this happened,” he said. “This is an incredibly isolated incident.”

Despite some bumps, the pace of vaccinations continues to increase in Colorado, with 75,000 shots administered on two occasions last week, said Colorado National Guard Brig. Gen. Scott Sherman.

On Friday, Gov. Jared Polis had said the state would share information on “breakthrough” cases — when a person was infected despite being vaccinated — this week. Bookman said Thursday that the state is still preparing that data.

Johnson & Johnson pause continues

France gave a brief update on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during Thursday’s press briefing.

A committee advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended a pause on new vaccinations with the Johnson & Johnson shot through most of next week to get more information about whether rare blood clots are, in fact, more common after getting that vaccine.

At “first blush” it looks like they could be, France said, but deciding based on that is like trying to estimate Colorado’s elk population based on how many you see driving from Denver to Durango.

“The first look suggests we have more elk, but it could be coincidence. You have to do more research,” he said.

After further looking into the clotting issue, the committee could recommend proceeding with Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, halting them altogethe, or advising that certain groups avoid them, France said. The six cases announced this week all involved women younger than 50.

The pause shows that systems meant to identify rare potential complications worked, he said.

“Everything is working as expected,” he said.

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