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Are Colorado’s COVID-19 Restrictions Easing Too Soon?

Local experts weigh in on the state’s decision to loosen restrictions as new, more contagious strains of the SARS-COV-2 virus emerge.

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As Colorado continues its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the state is inching—and in some cases, bounding—toward normalcy.

On Monday, the state health department eased a slew of COVID-related restrictions, rejiggering its county-level dial system to push last call for alcohol later and allow greater capacity at restaurants and seated indoor events, among other changes. On Tuesday, the Colorado Rockies announced the state will permit 21,363 fans to attend games at Coors Field this season, up from the previously announced limit of 12,500.

These easing restrictions are welcome news for our limping economy and Coloradans eager to resume the rhythms of pre-coronavirus life. But as new, more contagious strains of the virus emerge in the Centennial State, is it possible Colorado is reopening too soon? We posed this question to two local public health experts. As with anything COVID-19-related, the answer is a bit, well, complicated.

We’ll start with some good news: Colorado’s epidemic curve has eased considerably since its peak late last year. On December 1, the peak, 1,847 Coloradans were hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19; as of Wednesday, that number had dropped to 300. “We’ve made progress in controlling the epidemic,” says Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. “And we have done that in the face of lightening some policy measures.”

The state’s accelerating COVID-19 vaccine rollout is also encouraging. As of Tuesday, more than 1.1 million Coloradans have received one dose of the vaccine, and another 653,382 have been fully vaccinated. The week of February 28 (the most recent week for which data is available), Colorado administered 247,479 doses of vaccine—more than double the weekly rate in early January, according to state health department data.

It’s too soon to say how the loosened restrictions announced this week will impact Colorado’s progress in the epidemic; it takes about 10 to 14 days for the effects of policy changes to be reflected in COVID-19 data. But steps taken in January and February—including the return of many school districts to in-person learning and expanded capacity at restaurants and gyms in some areas—have not led to a surge in new cases or hospitalizations. So far, “we don’t have indication that we’ve done the wrong thing,” says Samet. “The downward pace of the epidemic curves speaks for itself.”

Of note, Colorado’s prevalence of COVID-19 seems to have plateaued in recent weeks, according to a chart of the state’s two-week cumulative incidence. Still, the virus’s estimated reproduction number—essentially, how many people on average will contract COVID-19 from one infected person—has remained slightly below one, according to Samet. And that’s good, he says.

It doesn’t mean we’re in the clear, though. Part of the challenge in reopening, cautions Samet, is the risk of “overshooting” and doing too much, too fast. He describes the recent decision by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to lift the state’s mask mandate and open all businesses to 100 percent capacity, despite thousands of new COVID-19 cases reported in Texas each day, as not “the right thing to do.” Mississippi also recently lifted its mask mandate, as did Iowa, Montana, and North Dakota.

Colorado, of course, hasn’t taken such drastic measures. On March 5, Governor Jared Polis extended the statewide mask mandate for another 30 days. Our state’s adherence to mask wearing—a proven method for slowing the spread of COVID-19—has allowed us “a little more freedom” to relax other public health measures like increasing capacity at restaurants and retail stores, says Dr. Connie Savor Price, chief medical officer at Denver Health. Price believes that Colorado can continue to safely reopen—and in the process, balance public health goals with economic recovery goals—so long as mask wearing and other measures like social distancing are maintained. But if case rates start climbing again, “we need to reverse course quickly,” she warns.

Now for some worrisome news: Several new, more transmissible strains of SARS-COV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) are emerging in Colorado. On Sunday, the state announced that Colorado’s first cases of a B.1.351, a strain first identified in South Africa, were detected at the Colorado Department of Corrections in Buena Vista. B.1.351 spreads more easily and quickly than other SARS-COV-2 strains, and data suggest that antibody treatments and vaccination may be less effective against this strain compared to others, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said in a press conference on Tuesday.

The B.1.351 cases in Buena Vista include two facility staff and one inmate, none of whom have a known history of travel, Herlihy said. These cases were identified through random sequencing as part of the state’s variant surveillance program. That program, said Herlihy, has also identified 265 cases of B.1.1.7 (a variant first detected in the U.K. that is more transmissible and possibly more deadly than other variants) and 161 cases of B.1427/B.1429 (a California variant that may be more transmissible and deadly than other strains).

Only a small percentage of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases—about five percent, according to Herlihy—are currently being sequenced in the variant surveillance program. That means “we don’t have a true idea of how prevalent these new variant strains really are in our community,” says Price. The state expects to ramp up its sequencing in the weeks ahead, Herlihy said.

In the meantime, the fact that COVID-19 case numbers haven’t risen in Colorado despite the presence of these variants warrants “some reassurance,” says Samet. The variant B.1.1.7 has been in Colorado since at least late December, and while it has spread in that time, Herlihy said the limited data available suggest the growth rate has been slower than what was documented in the U.K.

Still, much is still unknown about the variants, and while we wait for more information, it’s important to vaccinate as many Coloradans as quickly as possible so as to reduce the number of people susceptible to infection, the experts say. “In a sense, there’s a race between the rate at which we’re vaccinating and the potential rate in which the variants could rise,” says Samet.

Adds Price: “I think if we are aggressive with our vaccine efforts, we can prevent a third wave.”

So to return to the original question: Is Colorado reopening too soon? The data we have today seems to suggest we’re on an OK track. But with so many unknowns—the variants, the vaccine rollout, the impact of this week’s loosening restrictions—it’s hard to say for certain. For now, as we’ve done for much of the past 12 months, we must simply wait and see.

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