Colorado’s COVID-19 cases are stable now, but officials worry Labor Day could set up a winter spike

Colorado’s COVID-19 epidemic is less severe than it was when people got together to celebrate the Fourth of July, but some public health officials are worried that Labor Day parties could launch a chain reaction leading to a grim winter.

Any bump in cases of the new coronavirus from Labor Day likely would be relatively short-lived, similar to the spike in the second half of July, said Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health.

While even a small increase in cases can lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, the bigger concern is that a holiday bump and any increase from schools reopening could reinforce each other, putting Colorado in a difficult position heading into the winter flu season.

The School of Public Health’s models show there could be almost no change in the epidemic’s trajectory in Colorado if schools can avoid bringing too many people into close contact and the public doesn’t throw caution to the wind this weekend.

But if students and the adults around them can’t maintain their distance at school and Labor Day celebrations bring large numbers of people together without masks or adequate space, there could be a significant increase in hospitalizations over the winter.

The virus is so new that’s its impossible to be certain which scenario is most likely, Samet said.

Schools began reopening in mid-August, so we’ll likely know soon if in-person classes caused an increase in cases, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said. Any spike linked to Labor Day likely won’t show up until about two weeks later, because it takes time for people to develop symptoms, she said.

“The next couple of weeks is when we expect to see potential outbreaks and increases in cases from reopening, if we’re going to see them,” she said.

Colorado is in a better place than it was heading into the Fourth of July weekend, Samet said. Cases had been slowly rising in the second half of June, before taking off in July. In the second half of August, cases have slowly declined, and appear to have hit a plateau at a manageable level, he said.

“We’re in a pretty good place and we want to stay there,” he said.

As of the end of August, social distancing was the near the level at the end of Colorado’s stay-at-home order, and it appears most people are wearing masks in public and following other recommendations, Herlihy said. Each person who gets the virus in Colorado is infecting an average of less than one person, meaning the spread is under control, she said.

“The strategies we have in place right now are working well,” she said.

That could change, however, if people dramatically change their behavior. Over the Fourth of July weekend, Coloradans had about twice as many close interactions as they have in recent weeks, Herlihy said. It’s important that they continue avoiding large events, keeping their distance from people they don’t live with, wearing masks and washing their hands, she said.

If you do attend an event where you’re at a higher risk of being exposed, it’s important to isolate until you’re tested. It’s best to get tested about seven days after the exposure, because the test can’t always detect the virus in the first few days of infection, Herlihy said.

Colorado is doing well compared to most states, which could help reduce the impact of changing weather if residents keep following the recommendations, said Dr. David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Respiratory viruses tend to spread more efficiently in cold weather, though obviously the summer heat wasn’t the savior some people had hoped for, he said.

“If a lot of regions can control transmission now, we might enter into a relatively quiet period,” he said. “You have to reduce the likelihood that any given person who’s in a crowded area with you has it.”

In 1918, during that flu pandemic, cities made the mistake of believing the virus was gone in the summer, which set up the deadly second wave in the fall and winter, Rubin said. While we’ve gotten a lot better at saving lives over the last century, cases could rebound in the same way if people get tired of following the rules and go back to normal life, he said.

“We’re going to enter a terrain in fall where it’s much harder to control,” he said.

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