Gov. Jared Polis warned that the COVID-19 outbreak is growing once more in Colorado, though he said the state’s hospitals have sufficient capacity to handle the new cases for now.
“The bad news is we’ve had some slippage,” Polis said at a press conference. “We need to be more responsible. We need to wear masks more. We need to avoid gatherings."
In the last week, Colorado has seen a 28 percent jump in hospitalizations for people with COVID-19 or those suspected of having it, to a total of 318 on Thursday.
Polis has held back from introducing a mask mandate or other new statewide restrictions, instead calling for local and personal action. And he noted that the state has better control of the virus than Texas and Nevada, where infections have surged.
The numbers may be higher in part because more hospitals are reporting their COVID-19 patient numbers than before, but that’s not enough to account for the growth.
Some of the uptick is expected as the state opens its economy, and the summer tourist season could bring more cases too, particularly among visitors from states experiencing dramatic coronavirus spikes.
Parts of Colorado are seeing a more distinct increase. In El Paso County, public health officials expect "moderate to high risk of transmission," based on recent case counts, according to Kimberly Pattison, the Communicable Disease Program Manager for the county health department.
“Throughout the past couple of weeks, we have seen a steady increase in the number of cases that have been reported to us,” Pattison said.
She said the disease is spreading as people return to their normal activities like shopping, going to the office, and seeing friends. The cases are trending toward younger people, who are less vulnerable to the disease but can easily transmit it to others.
Indeed, Polis directed some of his most forceful comments on Thursday to younger Coloradans.
"What I'm telling you is: four friends, not a party of 80 people. And it's really important that people get that message," he said. "Don't put your own life and the lives of your friends in jeopardy."
A recent uptick of cases in Boulder centered in the University Hill neighborhood, where college-age residents reported attending large parties and protests before their illnesses.
Polis said that the virus case counts are growing as the outbreak once again exceeds an “R0” value of one, meaning that each sick person is infecting more than one other person.
One group of researchers estimate that the state’s R naught value has climbed back to 1.09, the same place it was when Gov, Jared Polis ordered Coloradans to “stay at home” back in March. Polis said on Thursday it could be as high as 1.2 or 1.3 new cases per infection.
But for now, the governor said, Colorado remains a “positive outlier" when compared to some other parts of the country.
Polis praised Coloradans for embracing masks, saying that more than half of the state was now under local government orders to wear them. The governor has leaned on local leaders to make decisions about masks.
“It can be a hard vote for a city councilperson or a commission, but you are doing the right thing for your community,” Polis said.
The governor hasn’t issued a statewide mask mandate. He argued that the state would have a hard time enforcing that rule without local support, since most law enforcement officers are employed by cities and counties. Still, Polis wouldn’t rule out the idea of a statewide mandate.
The Tri-County Health Department’s board recently approved a mandate that will require people to wear face-coverings in an area that crosses Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. Counties and municipalities will be able to opt out of the order, though. Adams County has seen a particularly high percentage of positive tests.
Polis has consistently stuck to the theme of personal responsibility as the key to limiting the spread of coronavirus. He said he's operating on the belief that public behavior will determine 80 percent of the course of the virus, with only 20 percent shaped by government policy.
“Wear a damn mask!” he implored, arguing that mask-wearing will ensure the health not just of individuals, but also the overall economy.