As Customers And Employees Return, Coronavirus Outbreaks Bloom At Retail Stores

King Soopers Capitol Hill 200519
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A mask requirement is posted at the door of the King Soopers in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, May 19, 2020.

As Colorado continues a gradual return to economic activity, retail establishments now represent the largest share of new COVID-19 outbreaks, according to data released by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment Wednesday.

The state identified 41 new outbreaks total, defined as two or more cases within a 14 day period.

Since the first week of May, Colorado has seen a shift in where outbreaks are occurring, from confined, isolated places like elder care and correctional facilities to areas where workers or members of the public congregate.

The stores with outbreaks include both grocery and hardware stores, which have remained open as essential businesses for the entirety of the state’s closures, and two thrift stores that were allowed to open on May 1 under the new safer at home restrictions.

A Goodwill store in Colorado Springs had three employees test positive for COVID-19 two weeks after it opened its doors to the public. The store has remained closed since May 17 when the outbreak was first detected. But according to Bradd Hafer, a spokesperson for Goodwill Colorado, the store enforced strict social distancing measures, limited the number of customers inside and had employees wear masks when the store was open.

“Despite taking all those recommended measures, we had something like this sneak through,” Hafer said. “For everybody, every retailer, this is a heads up that people really need to keep those safety measures in mind and be reactive when proactive doesn't do."

CDPHE officials attribute at least some of the shift in the setting of outbreaks to a better response in elder-care facilities. Since May 1, the state has required elder care facilities to have outbreak plans and has coordinated asymptomatic testing of staff and residents in facilities without known outbreaks.

"We have seen a declining number of outbreaks that are occurring in senior and inpatient healthcare facilities and we really attribute that to a lot of the great work that's happening in these facilities,” Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, said during a media conference Wednesday.

Though the number of new outbreaks at elder care facilities is declining, they still make up nearly 60 percent of Colorado’s total number of outbreaks. As of this week, nearly 4,000 residents of senior living facilities and nearly 3,500 staff have had a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 and 719 people have died. That’s more than half the state’s deaths associated with the pandemic.

An outbreak at the state-run Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons continued, with 12 resident deaths now confirmed or suspected to have been caused by COVID-19.

Two correctional facilities now lead the state in institutional infections. The Sterling Correctional Facility has 440 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in Denver has 581 cases, 373 of which have not yet been lab-confirmed.

More frequent testing of asymptomatic cases could also be playing a role in the detection of some outbreaks. The largest new outbreak this week was at Steven Roberts Original Desserts, a dessert manufacturing facility in Aurora with 770 employees, where 104 employees tested positive for the disease.

According to a company spokesperson, employees were being screened before entering work and none had shown symptoms. The company hired two full-time nurses to test every employee at the facility in order to catch any asymptomatic cases.

“Our pro-active, company-sponsored testing of the entire active employee population is just one of numerous measures we have deployed to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19,” read a statement from Steven Roberts Original Desserts. “We continue to evaluate the ever-changing landscape of this pandemic and are well-positioned to nimbly respond as the situation requires.”

According to Ashley Richter, the communicable disease epidemiology manager at Tri-County Health, the health department determined that the facility’s cleaning, screening and other infection control practices were found to be adequate and the facility has not had to close.

Even as the cumulative number of outbreaks in the state continues to climb, the curve of active outbreaks is starting to flatten as previous outbreaks are resolved and fewer new ones are popping up.