Coronavirus spread at universities potential early warning sign for next virus spike

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Colorado state health officials are concerned that a slight uptick in COVID-19 transmissions — particularly at colleges and universities — could be an early warning sign for another spike in cases.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said Tuesday the state is still seeing low positivity rates and hospitalizations well below the capacity — all good signs. 

But the last few weeks have seen an increase in new cases for those ages 10-29, and more specifically college-age individuals, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said during Tuesday’s news conference. 

“The worry is that the college transmissions could lead to community transmissions,” Polis said. 

New cases for those ages 10-17 have plateaued, Herlihy said, which means the state hasn’t seen a large virus impact from K-12 students returning to school in-person in some areas of the state. The state has reported a few outbreaks at K-12 schools in the last few weeks in El Paso County, Denver County and Douglas County, according to the state’s published outbreak data. 

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The most significant increase in new coronavirus cases has been for college-aged individuals, specifically those who are likely first- or second year-students. Herlihy said this is likely because of their behaviors — like attending larger social gatherings — and living situations, like residence halls or sorority or fraternity houses. 

Herlihy said they’ve seen a larger increase in new coronavirus cases for this age group in Boulder and Denver, but did not mention Fort Collins or Colorado State University as an area of concern Tuesday.

CSU now has 189 cases related to campus since they started tracking in May, including 19 positive tests among students dated Friday through Monday, according to the university website on Tuesday.

University of Colorado Boulder saw a much larger spike in new cases over the weekend, with 89 cases reported Friday and another 77 reported Monday, according to their website, with a total of 384 positive cases since Aug. 24. 

Colorado health officials expect outbreaks at colleges and universities to potentially double this week, Herlihy said. 

Social distancing levels have also been declining statewide, Herlihy said. On average, Coloradans are practicing about 65% social distancing now. If the trend continues toward less social distancing, Herlihy said it’s possible the state could see another spike in cases. 

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“We’re really right at the level of social distancing where we could potentially see growth again,” Herlihy said. 

Five counties have qualified for the Protect Our Neighbors phase — the next phase of reopening — as of Tuesday, Polis said, which allows for more local flexibility and larger gatherings.

Larimer County remains in the Safer at Home phase, though county commissioners have recently said they’d like to see the county apply for the Protect Our Neighbors phase. 

“We’re all tired of coronavirus, but the coronavirus is not tired of us,” Polis said. “… It’s in your hands, Colorado.

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Sady Swanson covers crime, courts, public safety and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at sswanson@coloradoan.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support our work and local journalism with a digital subscription at Coloradoan.com/subscribe.