Coronavirus Outbreaks Set New Record As A Third Wave Of Infections Keeps Growing

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a sign on Berthoud Pass reminds travelers to wear a face mask, Thursday morning, Oct. 22, 2020.

With new cases, positive tests and COVID-19 hospitalizations all rising in Colorado, it should not be a surprise that the number of new coronavirus outbreaks recorded in a week has also set a new record for the state.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 106 new COVID-19 outbreaks this week, the highest number of new outbreaks reported in a single week since the pandemic began. An outbreak is defined as two or more COVID-19 cases in one facility within a two-week period.

Gov. Jared Polis, local and state public health officials and others have been warning Coloradans to reduce their number of contacts outside the home and return to mask-wearing and social distancing around other people. Several counties across the state have reinstituted restrictions, including Denver.

The record number of reported outbreaks, and an array of other troubling statistics released by CDPHE Wednesday, made a persuasive case for the increased urgency.

The percentage of COVID-19 tests that returned positive results, averaged over seven days, reached 7 percent in the data released Wednesday, the first time it has been that high since May 30. The number of people hospitalized in Colorado with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 also shot up from 648 to 721 — an 11 percent increase in a single day.

The numbers all make clear that Colorado has entered a third wave of the virus — one that has already far surpassed the second wave in July when, at its peak, 412 confirmed and suspected COVID patients were hospitalized and the seven-day test positivity rate reached 5.55 percent.

At the pandemic’s Colorado peak in April, the seven-day positivity rate reached 22.42 percent, but the state tested so few people at the time that it was impossible to know how widespread the virus might have been. More than 1,200 confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients were hospitalized at one point in April.

So far, the difference in this wave is that the virus has not reached the most vulnerable Coloradans as pervasively as it did in April — though there are concerning signs there too.

Reports of deaths can lag by several days, and the state reported Wednesday that 14 people suffering from COVID-19 died on Oct. 20 alone. That’s the largest number recorded on a single day since June 5, at the end of the initial wave.

The state releases data on outbreaks on Wednesdays, and as the number of those has grown, their location has also shifted since the beginning of the pandemic. 

In March and April, when CDPHE began releasing outbreak data, nearly all outbreaks occurred at facilities housing the elderly or other vulnerable populations.

As the economy reopened, it shifted to workplaces. The food supply was hit particularly hard with outbreaks of hundreds of workers at both the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley and the Steven Roberts Original Desserts factory in Aurora. Now the occurrence of outbreaks has become much more widespread and includes a wider segment of the population.

During the last several weeks the majority of outbreaks have occurred within educational facilities like schools, child care centers and colleges as students returned to campus.

Correctional facilities have also remained hotspots for COVID-19 with their outbreaks representing a large share of the total number of people infected.

CDPHE reported 29 educational facilities with outbreaks this week. The agency also reported seven new outbreaks at correctional facilities, which accounted for 187 cases and 28 probable cases. According to the report, 75 of these cases occurred at the Youthful Offender System in Pueblo, which houses inmates between the ages of 14 and 25.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the seven-day test positivity rate reached 5.52 percent in July. It had reached 5.55 percent.