By Pam Zubeck
As Gov. Jared Polis issued a new executive order extending the “stay-at-home” order until April 26 — four days before the national stay-home order ends — a glimmer of good news is trickling out of data collected by El Paso County.
Polis spoke to Coloradans via a news conference April 6, saying a “silver lining” to the latest numbers for COVID-19 cases caused by the novel coronavirus shows that instead of new cases doubling every one to two days, it’s slowed to doubling every six or seven days. That’s due to people practicing social distancing and staying home, he said.
“Keep up the good work,” Polis said, urging people to observe his recommendation and stay home and go out only if “absolutely necessary.” But Polis said if things don’t show dramatic improvement, he could still extend the order beyond April 26.
“By following these steps, you’re saving lives,” he said.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, interviewed by KOAA News5 immediately after Polis’ message, commended the governor for “listening to health experts” and warned “the next couple of weeks will be critical.”
“If people honor the stay-home order, we will get through this faster than we otherwise would,” Suthers said.
But the numbers weren’t great. Through April 6, the state had 5,429 cases, a bigger jump than the previous day. Hospitalizations reached 1,079 in 54 counties and 28,094 tests have been administered. Also, 179 deaths were reported, 20 more than the previous day.
In El Paso County, cases grew by only 16, from 441 to 457, and deaths were flat at 28.
Meantime, El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly delivered some “mostly good news” to county commissioners on April 7 by noting that while deaths continue to rise, they are occurring almost exclusively in long-term care facilities or among people who had been living there.
“The important points are the slowing of the new case numbers despite increased testing capacity as well as the flattening of the curve for our new hospitalizations which is the most important number when we are monitoring surge capacity,” Kelly said.
For cases as a whole, the average age of virus victims was 54 years old; 67 for those hospitalized; and 77 years old for deaths.
One reader raised the question of why El Paso County’s death rate from COVID-19 is 6.35 percent, compared to the rate of 2.6 percent for the state as a whole, excluding El Paso County.
Kelly said the death rate is driven by how many people get tested. As more people are tested, especially younger and more minimally symptomatic people, the rate will go down. Early on, the county asked those residents to just stay home and not get tested, reserving the tests for hospitalized patients, at-risk populations and health care workers.
“Thus, the people we tested were the sickest and, therefore, we have higher numbers of sick (and subsequently deceased people) tested,” Kelly says. As the number of tests expands, the fatality rate will likely decline, he said.
He added that early on, many cases involved the bridge club, which included a high at-risk population of older people, as well as in long-term care facility.
“As far as deaths corrected for population, we are not significantly elevated over other Colorado counties or other similar sized communities across the country,” he said.
Also on April 6, Gov. Polis signed an order that limits evictions, foreclosures and public utility disconnections, as well as expedites unemployment insurance claims processing. From a release:
Gov. Polis is taking steps to help families and businesses by extending additional tax filing and payment deadlines. Gov. Polis signed an Executive Order issuing a one-month extension for filing and remitting state and state-administered local sales tax.In addition, the Governor extended Executive Orders on the temporary suspension of elective and non-essential surgeries and procedures, the closure of ski areas, the suspension of in-person requirements for notarizations, and the issuance of marriage licenses when county clerk and recorder offices are closed, as well as the suspension of other regulatory requirements, including clarifications to alcohol delivery and takeout, requirements related to taxicab carriers, in-person processes for background checks, and driver’s license and identification card renewal, due to the presence of COVID-19.
Suthers, Kelly, Springs Police Chief Vince Niski and Fire Chief Ted Collas held a 25-minute news briefing on April 7 to thank people for social distancing and wearing masks. Kelly said wearing masks is “merely” a recommendation from the governor and Public Health.
“We are asking our citizens to volunteer,” Kelly said, noting that wearing a mask won’t protect against the virus but will protect you from spreading it to others if you have it.
Kelly said masks don’t have to be worn at home or in a vehicle, but rather when out in public in places were social distancing is difficult or impossible.
The mayor reported compliance has improved for citizens spreading out and keeping distance from others in city parks.
In other news:
• UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital announced that last week it treated its first COVID-19 patient with a blood product called convalescent serum. UCHealth operates city-owned Memorial hospitals.
When someone gets infected with COVID-19, their body has an immune response that creates antibodies. Those antibodies help them fight off the infection. Convalescent serum, which comes from plasma of a person who has recovered from the virus, contains those antibodies. Transfusing a sick person with those antibodies delivers a virus fighter. But the treatment is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration and results so far are uncertain. The antibodies method has not yet been used in Colorado Springs. Other trials are also under way at UCHealth.
• The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration said April 7 that taxpayers should be on alert for potential scams related to government assistance to taxpayers impacted by the coronavirus. For example, the IRS won’t contact you by phone and ask for personal identification or financial information. The IRS never asks taxpayers to make payments using iTunes cards, prepaid debit cards and the like. And it will never ask for personal or financial information by e-mail, text messages, letter or any social media. If you get such a call, hang up.
• Centura Health, one of the largest health systems in Colorado which operates the Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs, issued a release saying Polis’ actions “are positively slowing the spread of this novel coronavirus.” But Centura noted that Colorado is also faring well due to its “healthier, younger, and less dense population” compared to other epicenters that have emerged nationally.
Centura said 14 of its 17 hospitals are caring for COVID-19 patients: 203 are in intensive care; 552 occupy medical/surgical beds; 96 are in negative pressure isolation beds; and the system is using 112 ventilators.
Despite an easing of the growth of the virus, Peter D. Banko, president and CEO of Centura, which serves Colorado and Western Kansas, said in the release, “Centura still expects to see a significant increase of critically ill patients presenting with respiratory symptoms who will require extended hospitalization and ventilation. In the next two weeks and at least through the end of April (or early May), we will be challenged in ways we haven’t been before, and it will require us to come together as an organization, with our fellow health systems, and as a community like never before.”