By Pam Zubeck

The crunch of COVID-19 patients that flooded hospitals has evened out, spawning talk of reopening the region for business.

El Paso County Public Health officials briefed the Board of El Paso County Commissioners and Colorado Springs City Council on April 14, but warned that social distancing, the wearing of masks and closures won’t change overnight.

El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly says those measures should stay in place for awhile, unless officials want conditions to return with a new wave of disease strikes, and deaths.

Meanwhile, the new numbers from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment show a slowing of the increases, but increases nonetheless.

The state reported 250 more cases, for a total of 7,941 through April 13; 63 more hospitalizations, for a total of 1,556; and 21 more deaths, for a total of 329. Those increases are below the changes from April 11 to April 12.

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In El Paso County, 41 people have died as of April 13, two more than the previous day, and 652 people have the disease, 11 more than the previous day.

Director of Public Health Susan Wheelan said up to 150 staff from the county and the Pikes Peak Regional Office of Emergency Management are working “round the clock” to investigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

“There have been hundreds of investigations, and these people continue to investigate these clusters,” Wheelan said.

“While this challenge has been monumental and the tasks have been numerous,” Kelly said, “we feel from a public health perspective for the first time since this started, we are winning and we are in a good place. We’ve been able to expand testing beyond inpatients and those critically ill.”

That’s created a light at the end of the tunnel when certain activities can be allowed to resume as long as robust testing remains at the fingertips of health care providers, he said.

“The overwhelming number of people are going to be well and get better,” he said. “The goal is go from broad community-wide interventions to more tactical interventions.”

As officials begin to ease restrictions on people’s movements, the “No. 1 weapon” to prevent further spread is testing, he said. Health care providers need to have the ability to identify those with the disease and get results back quickly, he noted.

“We lost that ability in this fight early on,” he said, due to a lack of tests. “Which was why we went to plan B, mitigation. The reality is, as you lift restrictions that it’s guaranteed the disease will spread. And that’s OK. There doesn’t need to be panic. As long as we have ability to control it, we’ll be all right.”

Kelly warned the government has “to be smart about this” so the virus doesn’t once again overwhelming the health care system.

“It’s not an overnight, mission-accomplished situation,” he said. “This is not going to be business as usual for a very very very long time.” Kelly said local data will be available on an analytics dashboard at elpasocountyhealth.org later this week. Meantime, here’s a report specific to El Paso County compiled by Voro.com, a healthcare social network.

Dr. Richard Zane, UCHealth chief innovation officer and emergency services executive director, backed up Kelly’s conclusions.

“Our numbers of hospitalized patients remain near record highs,” Zane said in a release. “However, we’re beginning to see some positive trends. The rate of increase of new cases has slowed, and our number of hospitalized patients is growing more slowly, but it is essential that Coloradans continue to practice social distancing. The minute we let up, we will likely see cases spike again.”

While tests might be more readily available, the American Medical Association on April 14 issued a statement noting there is “serious concern about the availability of personal protective equipment for physicians, frontline health care workers and laboratory workers handling specimens and test kits related to COVID-19.” The AMA called on FEMA to act as “the single national source for procurement of the supplies.”

Amid all the talk of reopening the country, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, joined other Senate Democrats in planning new legislation that would create the America Forward Commission, a panel of experts, that would develop a broad strategy of how and when to safely reopen the country.

In other news:
UCHealth hospitals have discharged more than 370 patients with COVID-19, while about 250 patients continue to receive care, UCHealth, which runs city-owned Memorial Hospitals, said in a release. More than 50 of those who recovered had been patients in southern Colorado facilities.

“We celebrate each and every time one of our patients recovers,” Jessica Yoo, a nurse and house supervisor at Memorial Hospital, said in the release. “Seeing patients go home and be reunited with their loved ones gives us renewed energy and optimism.”

Among those who recovered is Hakan Karan, a husband and father from Colorado Springs who was admitted March 25 to Memorial Hospital North with COVID-19. After a week on a ventilator, he was released to go home on April 10.

The Home Mask Makers of Colorado Springs are making free cloth masks. Says one member via email, “We’re a group of 10 people who share tips, materials and orders for masks. In total, we’ve made over 300 masks, as of today. We’ve made masks for friends and family, and supplied nursing homes, medical staffing agencies, a team at the sheriff’s dept. We’ve sent masks to [New York], Illinois and [California]. We want to get masks to anyone who wants one, free of charge, and we have the ability to deliver them. We are also looking for more [people to sew].”

AAA Colorado announced April 14 it would refund $100 million to customers in Colorado through reduced premiums due to fewer driven miles as a result of “stay home” orders. Customers with an active policy as of April 30 will receive a 20 percent refund for two months of auto premiums. Other insurance companies have announced similar refunds.

Safe2Tell tips dropped 13 percent in March due to the extended closure of schools, but Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and program Director Essi Ellis encourage students to continue utilizing the tip line from home. Prior Safe2Tell data reflects a cyclical decrease in tips during times of extended school closures. To date for the 2019-20 school year, Safe2Tell has received 17,775 tips, a 16 percent increase over the 2018-19 school year.

The Air Force Academy wishes to remind the public it will be closed to everyone but mission essential graduation staff from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 18 when the class of 2020 graduates. The ceremony is planned for 11 a.m. on the terrazzo. Spectators are not allowed due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Livestreaming can be found at youtu.be/qO3Ix_jKbZM.