Turning up the dial
La Plata among 15 counties heading into new 'red' severe risk category starting Friday

Turning up the dial

Gov. Jared Polis holds a press conference on COVID-19 at the Governor's Mansion on Tuesday. Starting Friday, 15 Colorado counties will move into the "red" sever-risk category for COVID restrictions due to high rates of transmission, hospitalizations and disease positivity./Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

John Daley /Colorado Public Radio & Missy Votel - 11/19/2020

Fifteen Colorado counties, including La Plata, now sit at the second-highest level of the state’s newly adjusted restrictions.

The counties affected will see new rules like prohibitions on personal gatherings, a temporary halt to indoor dining at restaurants and more severe restrictions on office and gym capacity. In addition to La Plata county, they are: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Clear Creek, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson, Logan, Mesa, Morgan, Routt, Summit and Washington counties.

The new restrictions kick in Fri., Nov. 20.

Local officials approved of the step, saying it is necessary to prevent further impacts on services and critical workers.

“Earlier in the COVID-19 crisis the Sheriff’s Office did not experience significant impacts, however in recent weeks, the virus has impacted staffing levels as it hit both Sheriff Office deputies and our local dispatch staff,” La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said Tuesday in a news release. “We need to ensure that we have first responders available so that we can provide for the safety needs of our community, so moving to level red is essential for the safety of our staff and the community.”

Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer echoed that sentiment. “By asking our community to only leave home for essential business, we are increasing the safety of our police officers and other first responders and ensuring that staff is available and healthy for all other emergency situations,” he said. “We also need businesses to do their part and ensure their customers comply with current mask restrictions so our officers are not placed in precarious scenarios. We are here to help, please help us keep our entire community safe and healthy.” 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment alerted another group of counties, Costilla, Custer, Lake, Montezuma, Pitkin and San Juan, that they'd be moving to the third most-severe level on Friday as well. At that level, the COVID-19 numbers are going up, but not to the point where everything needs to be shut down and capacity limits are moderate.

The state health department released the list after Gov. Jared Polis held a news conference saying that 10 to 15 counties would likely be subject to new restrictions but didn't reveal which, other than Denver.

Polis said that nationally, regionally and in Colorado, efforts to hold off the virus have proven insufficient.  

“What we're doing isn't working, and we clearly need to take more mitigation measures. And, that's what we're doing today,” he said. “It's a problem everywhere in our state.”

He noted that in Adams County, one in 58 people are currently contagious with coronavirus; in Denver, it’s one out of 64; and in Arapahoe County, it’s one out of 83. Statewide, about one in 110 people are contagious with coronavirus. 

Polis and top lawmakers announced a new classification in the state’s COVID-19 “dial” that comes with rules that will ban dining inside restaurants – takeout and delivery will still be available – and will limit capacity in gyms to 10 percent.

The new dial has a major impact on certain activities, like gatherings, schools, gyms and restaurants. Under the new second most-severe level, red – reserved for counties with high levels of transmission, hospitalizations and positivity rates – generally more activities are allowed but under strict guidelines. Most indoor activities are prohibited or strictly limited, and outdoor activities are encouraged as an alternative. The limits on capacity are significant.

Under the most severe level of the dial, purple, certain4  activities are closed or severely restricted. That level is for counties where hospital capacity is at extreme risk of being overrun. Businesses must “significantly curtail” in-person functions and people must stay at home except for necessary activities, according to the health department.

The governor sidestepped questions about whether the public might find the changes confusing.

“The dial is a powerful tool for mayors and commissioners, but for the general public, we really want to keep it simple,” he said. “There is a risk everywhere in our entire state.”

The change spotlighted the needle Polis and other top leaders are trying to thread. Hospitals are on the verge of a crisis not seen in many decades, perhaps since the last pandemic a century ago. COVID-19 patients are pouring in and staff shortages are looming. Meantime, without hoped-for federal relief, businesses, workers and families are facing their own financial crisis.

“Right now, in the here and now, we in Colorado need to act to stop this exponential growth to save lives and save our economy,” Polis said.

Parkview Hospital in Pueblo reached more than 100 percent capacity Monday, according to the governor, and patients had to be transferred to other facilities. 

The move comes with the state’s daily COVID-19 update revealing some of the most daunting numbers to date. Twenty-seven percent of Colorado hospitals reported that they expect staff shortages in the next week. The state reported 1,378 patients hospitalized Tuesday, up 84 from the day before; 11 percent of facilities said they anticipated ICU bed shortages in the next week. The seven-day case average is still soaring to new records, at 4,499, and most days now, the state is recording deaths in the double digits.

“It is important that we, in partnership with San Juan Basin Public Health and our communities, increase our efforts to slow and stop the spread of the coronavirus and support efforts to maintain a healthy community,” Michael Murphy, interim CEO of Mercy Regional Medical Center, said. He also repeated the edicts of mask wearing, safe social distancing and hand washing.

The state’s seven-day positivity rate of 12.59 percent – that’s five days above 12 percent, and well above the 5 percent threshold, which indicates trouble. But in a glimmer of good news, that figure hasn't yet pushed higher.

Durango Mayor Dean Brookie, however, urged continued vigilance until that glimmer grows into light at the end of the tunnel.

“We understand that moving to level red may be burdensome during the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, however, it is necessary,” Brookie said. “By staying home and interacting with only those people from our immediate households, we will ensure our local health-care system does not get overwhelmed and that our vibrant economy will be able to come back quickly and stronger than ever.”

Missy Votel added local content to this report. For more from Colorado Public Radio, go to www.cpr.org. n