Polis on COVID-19 in Colorado: 'This will get worse before it gets better'

Governor gives update on 'community spread' of coronavirus; cases up to at least 48

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A day after Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency in response to the spread of COVID-19 — the disease caused by a widespread coronavirus — the number of confirmed cases nearly doubled, and Polis announced guidelines for K-12 school closures and travel to Colorado's mountain towns.

“At this point, we can confirm community spread in the high country of Colorado, and while we're still investigating and have not confirmed community spread in the Denver metro area, we are treating it as if it is already occurring,” Polis said at a March 11 news conference.

Community spread can mean cases and outbreaks in areas where people became infected and the source is unknown. When it's more widespread, it means cases and outbreaks in many communities where the virus is spread between people. 

As of that afternoon, Colorado had 33 presumptive positive cases of COVID-19, and roughly 300 people had been tested.

By county, that includes three cases in Arapahoe, three in Jefferson, one in Larimer, two in Gunnison, six in Denver, three in Douglas, four in Eagle, one in El Paso and one in Summit — along with nine in Pitkin, where at least most of the cases appear to be related to a single visitor from Australia who went to Aspen.

Two-thirds of that total were listed as "exposed during travel," "exposed during international travel," having recent United States travel history or were in contact with the Australian visitor.

There is also one “indeterminate case” in Denver. Most cases were confirmed for people in their 30s to 70s, but one Denver case is a female teen, and one Douglas County case is a “school-aged female,” according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Generally, cases are being referred to as “presumptive positive” because initial testing is done at the state level, and results will be confirmed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

“We are likely on the verge of a tipping point where we will see more community spread,” Polis said at the news conference, where he also noted, “This will get worse before it gets better.”

But he also emphasized the role everyday citizens have in mitigating the spread and putting others first in the face of disruptions to daily life.“This is really a test of our Colorado character,” Polis said.

Protocol for schools, seniors

Polis announced guidance for all K-12 school districts in the state, outlining closures if they have a student or staff member who is infected.

One COVID-19 case at a school would trigger a closure for at least 72 hours to disinfect the building. For schools with three cases within a 30-day period, closure is required for a minimum of 14 days. If three schools in a district have cases within a 30-day period, all schools in the district are required to close for a minimum of 14 days.

The University of Colorado Boulder announced it would transition to online classes for the rest of the semester, starting March 16, due to COVID-19 concerns. Metropolitan State University of Denver is moving classes online by March 30, as is Colorado State University on March 25.

The state is also suggesting limited visitation to senior facilities, announcing incoming rules regarding nursing homes and senior-care facilities.

Some groups are at higher risk of getting very sick or dying from COVID-19, including those over age 60 — especially people over 80 years old — as well as people with chronic medical conditions.

“Young, healthy people should take the proper precautions so they don't perhaps fatally (impact) vulnerable populations,” Polis said.

The governor also advised that that older people and those with underlying health conditions should avoid travel to the high country and refrain from attending large gatherings.

Polis also highlighted sporting events as among the public gatherings that should take measures to prevent spread of the virus. The Colorado High School Activities Association, or CHSAA, announced it would limit attendance of state basketball tournament games this week to “essential team personnel only,” without fans in attendance. That means only those who have official CHSAA access can enter the tournament venue.

Guidance will also be issued on protecting staff and people in custody at Colorado's 24/7 facilities, such as correctional facilities, Polis said.

More results incoming

Colorado will soon have a better picture of community spread as results come in from the roughly 160 people tested for COVID-19 at the state's Lowry-area facility in Denver, which opened March 11 and is the state's first drive-up “community testing center.”

The 33 cases found out of the roughly 300 other tests were regarding people who were heavily prioritized for testing — generally, they had traveled, were exposed to someone who traveled or knew someone who is sick.

The state was also looking to set up a testing facility in the high country, Polis said.

Emergency powers

Polis' March 10 emergency declaration gives him broad temporary powers, and he is acting to protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus, said Conor Cahill, the governor's press secretary.

Polis directed state agencies to take actions such as emergency rules for paid leave for certain workers who exhibit symptoms and must miss work awaiting COVID-19 testing, allowing those over the age of 65 to extend their driver's licenses online and ensuring that costs don't prevent people from getting tested, under state-regulated insurance plans.

Testing criteria

UPDATE:The state's drive-up lab has moved and will continue to move through the state. Private labs can perform the test too. See recent details here.

At the state's drive-up facility in east Denver, those looking to be tested for COVID-19 must have a doctor's note stating that they meet criteria. That facility is located at 8100 E. Lowry Blvd.

The lab was open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays in its first week. Call the public health department at 303-692-2000 or email cdphe.information@state.co.us for the current hours.

To be tested there for COVID-19, people must meet one of seven criteria:

• Having fever or signs of lower respiratory illness, such as cough or shortness of breath, and having close contact with a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 patient within 14 days of showing symptoms, or:

• Having fever or signs of lower respiratory illness without a diagnosis that could explain them, such as influenza, and having a history of travel to areas with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 within 14 days of showing symptoms, or:

• Any person who is hospitalized and also has fever or signs of lower respiratory illness without a diagnosis that could explain it, or:

• Anyone who lives in a residential facility such as a nursing home and also has fever or signs of lower respiratory illness without a diagnosis that could explain it, or:

• Any health care worker, clinical laboratory worker or first responder who has new onset of symptoms within 14 days of having direct contact with patients who have signs of respiratory illness or their clinical specimens; and also has fever or signs of lower respiratory illness without a diagnosis that could explain it, or;

• Anyone who is at risk of severe illness due to COVID-19, including adults 65 and older, and those with chronic medical conditions or who are receiving immunosuppressive medications; and also has fever or signs of a lower respiratory illness without a diagnosis that could explain it, or;

• Any person in a group with multiple individuals with symptoms that is being investigated by public health officials; and also has fever or signs of lower respiratory illness.

People who do not meet the state's testing criteria can be tested at LabCorp and other commercial labs that will conduct COVID-19 testing.

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