As of April 22, Colorado had 11,262 COVID-19 cases, an increase of 384 cases over the 10,878 cases confirmed or reported by April 21.

Deaths have increased to 552, up from the previous day’s total of 508.

Statewide, 2,237 people have been hospitalized, and the disease has been identified in 56 counties.

In El Paso County, 812 cases have been confirmed, an increase of 38 over the previous day’s total of 774 cases.

Deaths in the county totaled 55, one more than the 54 that had been reported by April 21. The death toll in El Paso County is the fourth highest in the state, exceeded by Denver, Arapahoe and Weld counties.

Thursday afternoon, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $484 billion coronavirus relief package for small businesses, hospitals and expanded medical testing. The package includes an additional $320 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program.

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The bill passed 388-5 and now heads to President Trump, who has indicated he will sign it.

The JBS meat processing plant in Greeley, which was ordered closed April 10, is set to reopen April 24.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Weld County Department of Public Health shut down the plant and required its owners to put stringent measures in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Jill Hunsaker Ryan, CDPHE executive director, said during a conference call Thursday that industrial hygienists hired by JBS have been working with the health departments and other public health agencies to put protective measures in place.

“One of the stipulations of the public health order … put into place before the Easter weekend was that they would only be allowed to open if they had a safety plan that was agreed to by the public health agencies, so we feel like we are there,” Ryan said.

She said the plant’s testing and containment strategy includes a daily entry screening procedure with testing and specimen collection on site.

Ryan said the plant has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in addition to the two public health agencies to develop the testing and containment strategy.

The plant was closed after 43 COVID-19 cases and four deaths among employees of the meat processing plant were reported to the Weld County health department and hundreds of additional confirmed or presumptive cases were linked with employees.

Read more about how COVID-19 has disrupted national food supply chains and how local food producers are stepping up to fill the gap in the April 24 issue of the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

Also during Thursday’s press call, Ryan said Colorado’s stay-at-home strategy has been successful in lowering the trajectory of the disease in the state.

“So we feel like at this point we’re able to take a step down,” she said. Based on modeling projections, “we are pretty comfortable where we are today in terms of what’s going to be put out through Safer at Home,” the first phase of reopening the state, which is scheduled to begin April 27.

“We don’t have that fully designed, because we’re going through a stakeholder process that includes local public health agencies and businesses to see, as we loosen restrictions a bit, how can we still have prevention measures in place to slow the spread of this disease.”

Built into the Safer at Home process is flexibility for local officials to respond to local conditions, Ryan said.

“If community transmission is still high and they’re struggling with having enough capacity at their hospitals, they can certainly be more restrictive,” she said.

If community transmission is not widespread, with only a new few cases per day, adequate intensive-care beds adequate testing and contact tracing ability, “then they can do a step down,” she said.

Ryan said the department is requiring counties that want to open up their economies beyond what the state prescribes for Safer at Home to submit plans to the state health department. The plans would show what metrics the county would use that would trigger  retightening the rules, such as increased cases or hospital beds filling up.

Ryan emphasized that the Safer at Home phase “isn’t a license for any community to open up. … “We still want employees to work from home when they can” and for everyone to wear masks, wash hands frequently and practice social distancing.

Adequate testing is key to reopening the state, and Scott Bookman, incident commander for the state’s COVID-19 response, said the state has set an ambitious goal of doing several thousand tests per day.

State and local public health agencies will partner with health care providers, community health centers and hospitals to expand testing.

“This really needs to be a broad data strategy for testing done in partnership at all levels,” Bookman said.

“On a regular basis, we are now receiving different supplies for our testing supply chain from a number of different sources,” Bookman said. “We have received swabs and biotransporter media from the federal government. We received a large supply of test kits through private sector endeavor. We’re continuing to work on all fronts to get as much testing supplies as we can so we can ramp up that testing.”

Volunteers will be needed to help in this effort, and Bookman said potential volunteers can sign up at HelpColoradoNow.com.

Sarah Tuneberg, director of the state’s Innovation Response Team, said the state is in “a deep planning phase for these [next] couple of days to ensure that we have a contact tracing and testing plan and disease suppression plan that is really holistic and ensures continuity.”

Tuneberg said the state is building a team of “COVID navigators” who will assist COVID-positive individuals and people who have had contact with them to stay safely at home in isolation and developing the technological capacity to enable testing and tracing.

COS passenger drop:  The Colorado Springs airport experienced a significant downturn in air service in March and April due to a decrease in passenger traffic related to the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, after two months of increases in January and February, COS enplaned 34,595 passengers, bringing the total passenger number for the year to 310,223. This represented a 7.9 percent decrease for the year and a 40.7 percent decrease for the month.

While load factors for the month of March showed a 34.9 percent decrease percent for the month, seats were up 9.8 percent year-to-date, with all four carriers showing an increase based on original expectations for travel.

Even with the downturn of travelers, COS has continued its focus in construction and development.

Phase II of the first floor modernization on the east side of the terminal is near completion. This project mirrors updates on the west side, with new LED lighting, raised ceiling, fresh paint and updated flooring.

Construction for the USDA Forest Service airtanker base is proceeding, with the combination aerial firefighting and de-icing pad projected to be completed by this summer.

At the site of the Amazon fulfillment center, more than 1 million cubic yards of dirt have been graded and 65 percent of the footings are complete. Concrete pours for the building’s north end foundation are in progress.

The airport is slated to receive more than $24.3 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. These funds will be used to protect employee jobs and ensure operational readiness while COS revenues are reduced, airport officials said.

Student loan relief: Attorney General Phil Weiser announced April 23 that Colorado has secured relief options with many private student loan servicers to expand on the protections the federal government has granted to federal student loan borrowers.

The federal CARES Act provides relief for many borrowers with student loans, including the suspension of monthly payments, interest and involuntary collection activity until Sept. 30.

However, the CARES Act left out millions of student loan borrowers with federal loans that are not owned by the U.S. government as well as loans made by private lenders.

“During the COVID-19 crisis, many student loan borrowers are struggling financially and need relief, regardless of who owns their loan,” Weiser said. “I am pleased that several states and student loan servicers have come together to provide relief to more borrowers.”

Under this initiative, Coloradans with commercially held Federal Family Education Loans Program (FFELP) loans or private student loans who are struggling to make their payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be eligible for expanded relief.

Relief options include providing a minimum of 90 days of forbearance, waiving late payment fees, ensuring that no borrower is subject to negative credit reporting, ceasing debt collection lawsuits for 90 days and working with borrower to enroll them in other assistance programs, such as income driven repayment plans.

If regulated student loan servicers are limited in their ability to take these actions due to investor restrictions or contractual obligations, servicers are committed to working proactively with loan holders whenever possible to relax those restrictions or obligations. Servicers who take reasonable actions to support relief for borrowers during the pandemic will not be subject to state regulatory action.

Student loan servicers participating in the initiative include: Aspire Resources Inc., College Ave Student Loan Servicing LLC, Earnest Operations LLC, Edfinancial Services LLC, Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corporation, Lendkey Technologies Inc., Higher Education Loan Authority of the State of Missouri (MOHELA), Navient Corp., Nelnet Inc., SoFi Lending Corp., Tuition Options LLC, Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority (UHEAA), and Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC).

Borrowers in need of assistance should contact their loan servicer to identify the options that are appropriate to their circumstances. Borrowers experiencing trouble with their student loan servicer are encouraged to file a complaint at coag.gov/studentloans.

Order requiring masks and gloves: The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released an official public health order April 23 requiring workers in critical businesses and government functions to wear nonmedical masks and gloves while at work.

Under the order, workers in businesses who have close contact (within 6 feet) with other employees or the public must wear cloth masks while working. The order also requires these workers to wear gloves if they are in close contact with customers.

The order encourages employers to provide masks and gloves for their employees.

The critical businesses impacted by this public health order include banks, child care facilities, pharmacies and grocery stores. Critical businesses are defined in Public Health Order 20 24 and listed on the state’s COVID-19 website.

The main reason to wear a nonmedical mask is to protect others. Data show that people may spread COVID-19, even if they do not have symptoms, when speaking, coughing or sneezing, especially when closer than 6 feet of others.

The department is continuing to ask everyone to wear a nonmedical cloth face covering while out in public.

The public health order will remain in place until at least May 17.

Child care for families in need: The Colorado Department of Human Services announced it is extending eligibility for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program for families searching for jobs or waiting to resume an educational or training program.

The eligibility period increases from three months to six months for eligible families.

The department also is supporting the Keep the Lights On Fund, a public-private partnership that is supporting child care providers with donations of supplies including gloves, bleach and paper towels.

Cats test positive: The Centers for Disease Control reported April 22 that two pet cats have tested positive for COVID-19. The cats live in separate areas of New York state. The owner of one of the cats tested positive for the disease before the cat became ill.

No one in the household with the other cat was confirmed with the illness. The CDC stated in a release that the cat may have acquired the virus through a mildly ill or asymptomatic member of the household or through contact with an infected person outside the home.

Both cats had mild respiratory illness and are expected to make a full recovery.

Infections have been reported in a very few animals worldwide, mostly in those that had close contact with a person with COVID-19.

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