Larimer County needs to return to levels of social distancing not seen since early May to wrangle its rapidly escalating COVID-19 outbreak, Larimer County Health Director Tom Gonzales told Fort Collins City Council.
The county entered Level Red COVID-19 restrictions at 5 p.m. Tuesday, hours after state health officials projected that Colorado is expected to lose another 2,100 lives to the pandemic before the end of the year — and that’s if everyone follows social distancing protocols to the letter. The worst-case-scenario is another 3,800 deaths over the next five weeks. Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has killed more than 2,500 Coloradans.
Gonzales, speaking to council members at their Tuesday work session, showed them a graph of Larimer County’s stay-at-home index since the start of the pandemic. The index uses anonymous cellphone data to gauge how often residents are staying at home on average each day, compared with a baseline of January 2020 data. A stay-at-home index of 1 indicates that residents have reduced their time outside of their homes by 100%.
The county’s index reached a peak of about 0.85 around April 8 during the statewide stay-at-home order. It hovered above 0.5 for a few months after the stay-at-home order ended, then sunk steadily through the summer and early fall, Gonzales said. As of early November, it had reached 0.3, indicating residents have decreased their time spent out of their homes about 30% compared with January.
Larimer County needs to get its stay-at-home index up to 0.75 as soon as possible, Gonzales said, which is comparable to the days following the expiration of the stay-at-home order.
“We need to get back to right at that point where we were leaving the stay-at-home orders,” Gonzales said. “That way we can really make a dent in the transmission, thus reducing the number of hospitalizations.”
He said every resident needs to do their part to get there, limiting trips outside the home whenever possible and avoiding any gatherings with people outside their households. Gonzales, and several council members, stressed that residents should limit their Thanksgiving celebrations to just their households. The new Level Red restrictions prohibit all indoor gatherings with nonhousehold members, which are driving an estimated 40% of COVID-19 transmissions.
“We can’t see Grandma and Grandpa; we can’t see our neighbors,” Gonzales said. “We’re just going to stay with our household. … We’ve got to get our cases down, and we’ve got to get them down quick.”
The county also needs to get back below 5 percent test positivity, he added. Larimer County’s 14-day average test positivity rate is over 12%, indicating there’s more transmission in the community that is going undetected. The high demand for COVID-19 testing is also overwhelming the county’s testing capacity, resulting in limited availability and longer turnaround times for test results.
The county will be watching the stay-at-home index as an indicator of whether the new restrictions are having a positive effect, but it will likely take 14 days to see an impact because of the coronavirus’ long incubation period, Gonzales said.
In the meantime, more people will be admitted to hospitals, reflecting Larimer County’s exponential increase in infections over the last month. As of Wednesday, there were 112 people hospitalized with COVID-19 at Larimer County’s major hospitals.
“When we wrote our suppression plan back in May for our hospitals, we thought the doom and gloom day would be 65 (patients),” Gonzales said. “We’ve far exceeded that, and every day, we’re adding more people to hospitals.”
Hospitals have doubled up beds and enacted surge plans, but the hospitalization surge is more of a staffing problem than a beds problem, Gonzales said.
“They’re concerned that by mid-December, they won’t have a health care worker there to treat that person, whether it’s COVID-19 or another medical issue,” he said.
Council members said they were on board with the new Level Red restrictions and agreed with Gonzales that lowering hospitalizations should be the top priority. Fort Collins Mayor pro-tem Kristin Stephens said council members are advocating with state and federal legislators to try to get more funding to support businesses in the community.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is convening the Colorado General Assembly for a special session Nov. 30 to craft a COVID-19 stimulus package, including small business relief, housing and rental assistance, child care provider support and expanded broadband access for students and educators.
Another bright spot is the expected arrival of COVID-19 vaccine doses to Larimer County in December.
Colorado is expected to get its first doses by Dec. 12, including some doses delivered to health care providers in Larimer County, Gonzales said. Those doses will be reserved for health care workers. By the end of December, more doses should arrive for first responders and residents of long-term care facilities. Gonzales is also advocating for local teachers to get early access to the vaccine.
“The vaccine is coming, and that’s exciting news,” Stephens said. “If people can just hold out for a little bit longer, we’ll have a lot to celebrate next year.”
Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.