Colorado COVID outbreaks and hospitalizations rise; cases unclear

Colorado’s COVID-19 picture is murky as hospitalizations and outbreaks continue to rise, but cases show signs they might be starting to fall.

State epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases has gone down over the last few days, but it’s not clear if that’s the start of a plateau or a sustained decrease — or a blip before cases start to rise again. The average peaked at about 1,933 cases per day on Sept. 5, then dropped to around 1,717 as of Monday.

“It’s an unclear trend to me,” she said during a news briefing Wednesday.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are still increasing, though not as quickly as they were last week. If cases are truly falling, hospitalizations should follow in the near future. If they don’t, that could be a sign that the decrease in cases was a blip, or reflected insufficient testing.

The number of outbreaks in the state also continued rising, from 291 last week to 362 on Wednesday. More than one-third of current outbreaks are in schools.

In most settings, an outbreak is defined as five or more cases sharing some link. In a school, that could be a class or extracurricular activity that the students shared, or that they rode the bus together. When one school has multiple smaller clusters, the state reports them together.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are an exception, and have to declare an outbreak after two linked cases. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 67 nursing homes and 46 assisted living facilities had clusters, which was a combined increase of 13 from last week.

Outbreaks are particularly concerning in long-term-care facilities because their residents are at high risk for severe illness or death. The current outbreaks have infected 289 residents and 365 staff members. Ten residents have died.

As of Wednesday, 127 schools had outbreaks, up from 80 a week ago. So far, the active outbreaks have affected 1,379 students and 204 staff members. No one has died.

The majority of the outbreaks involved five or fewer people, but 11 schools had 30 or more cases:

  • Loveland High School, Thompson R2-J Schools: 46 student cases, three staff cases
  • Douglas County High School, Douglas County School District: 35 students, seven staff
  • Power Technical Early College, Falcon District 49: 35 students, seven staff
  • Northridge High School, Weld County District 6: 37 students, two staff
  • Eagle Valley High School, Eagle County Schools: 37 students, zero staff
  • Mesa Middle School, DCSD: 33 students, four staff
  • Horizon Middle School, Falcon: 29 students, four staff
  • Elbert School, Elbert District 200: 21 students, 11 staff
  • Mortensen Elementary School, Jeffco Public Schools: 22 students, eight staff
  • Resurrection Christian Middle/High School: 24 students, six staff
  • STEM School Highlands Ranch, DCSD: 30 students, zero staff

The outbreaks data may not capture the full picture because of delays in reporting. For example, Larimer County Public Health has linked 43 cases to Resurrection Christian School, according to The Coloradoan, but the state’s total is almost one-third lower.

The state health department has encouraged districts to require masks, but hasn’t issued its own mandate. About 78% of students go to schools that have a mandate, according to Chalkbeat Colorado.

While masks aren’t perfect and should be layered with other protections, like improved ventilation and regular testing, studies have found universal masking does reduce the odds COVID-19 will spread through schools.

Herlihy urged parents to have their children wear masks in schools and anywhere else where they’ll be inside with others. Kids are at a higher risk now than in previous stages of the pandemic, because the virus’s delta variant is highly contagious, and people younger than 12 still can’t be vaccinated, she said.

“We know what works to decrease the risk of disease transmission,” she said.

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